After nearly four years of research and development, the U.S.military is closer to helicopters that can fly themselves through unpredictable terrain and execute difficult missions with virtually no human input. It’s part of the Pentagon’s Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System, or ALIAS, program. Helicopter maker Sikorsky passed a key test earlier this month during an experiment at Fort Eustis, Virginia, involving an S-76B helicopter. The test demonstrated that Sikorsky’s software, called MATRIX, could take off, fly in difficult winds and at low altitude, avoid wires and other obstacles, and even make determinations about whether or not it is safe to land in one place or another. The goal, now, is to integrate the technology onto a Black Hawk helicopter next year.
In a conference call with reporters on Monday, representatives from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, and Sikorsky (the Lockheed Martin-owned company that makes the Black Hawk) said that the goal of the program—really, honestly, truly—isn’t to replace human pilots. And they emphasized that operators participated in the event, in which engineers also tested the functionality and ease of the human-software co-pilot interaction. The goal is software that works with a human, in just the right way, so that pilots can hand over the task of flying, or aspects of it, with as little forethought as possible, in case the operator needs to do important mission planning, or check Instagram, or nap.
But program managers were also eager to describe how the software was able to do all of the things required of a competent pilot.
“The operator specifies a point [on a tablet PC] and says, ‘I need to land near a particular point on the map,’ knowing nothing; there’s no other a priori data. The aircraft basically makes a plan of how to get there, starts getting there. En route to that point, [it is] doing all the usual things like obstacle avoidance. So it’s doing full autonomous flight,” said Igor Cherepinsky, Sikorsky’s autonomy director.
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