ROBOTICS AND AUTONOMOUS SYSTEMS

Sikorsky Enters Unmanned Cargo Aircraft Market

5/13/2014
By Valerie Insinna

ORLANDO — Lockheed Martin’s K-MAX unmanned helicopter rose to fame when the Marine Corps began using it to deliver supplies to troops in Afghanistan without risking pilots' lives. The aircraft could soon have a competitor: an unmanned Black Hawk.

Sikorsky on May 13 announced it is developing a commercial unmanned version of its popular utility helicopter, which will reuse retired UH-60A airframes.

“We’ve talked about offering it in either an optionally piloted variant, meaning a flight crew could jump in and fly it, or fully autonomous, meaning it would have no crew stationed [on it],” said Chris Van Buiten, Sikorsky vice president of technology and innovation.  “It will be interesting to see how the customers view that and what the requirements are.”

Having it optionally piloted would give customers the flexibility to fly the helicopter with or without a crew. Having the option to man the aircraft would permit a user to operate it in U.S. national airspace, he said.

The aircraft will be able to hold 9,000 pounds internally or externally, Van Buiten said. In comparison, the K-MAX can carry 6,000 pounds of cargo.

The company expects to lose one aircraft per 100,000 flight hours, according to a press release.

Sikorsky is in the process of designing the kit that would upgrade UH-60As into the unmanned version, Van Buiten said. He declined to disclose when the aircraft could be commercially available.

Sikorsky first piloted an unmanned Black Hawk — the manned/unmanned resupply aerial lifter, or MURAL — last month as part of an Army demonstration in West Palm Beach, Florida. Before that, the company flew an S-92 with autonomy software called Matrix.

The MURAL program used a newly built, fly-by-wire UH-60M, said Igor Cherepinsky, Sikorsky’s chief autonomy engineer. For the unmanned UH-60As, Sikorsky will have to retrofit fly-by-wire systems on the older aircraft and then add autonomy systems.

One cost-saving element of using Black Hawk airframes is that the aircraft is already in production, Van Buiten said. Customers will have access to a supply chain and maintenance infrastructure that already supports 3,000 aircraft around the world.

“That you have depots around the world is a huge cost element that we would be avoiding,” he said.

Sikorsky wants its unmanned Black Hawk to be compatible with existing command-and-control systems, such as the Army’s common ground system, Van Buiten said.

For the MURAL demonstrations, Sikorsky used military standard interfaces and a common data link used by UAVs for manned-unmanned teaming, said Jesse Lesperance, the company’s program manager. “We have a real big focus on making sure that whatever direction the services — specifically the Army in this case — go that we’re able to interoperate with the systems they provide.”

While Sikorsky officials were clear that they see the Army as a potential customer, Van Buiten was coy when asked whether the company could offer it to the Marine Corps, which is currently testing the K-MAX and Boeing’s unmanned Little Bird helicopter.

“We’re putting it out that … we’ll have this capability. It’s a tremendous amount of performance at an attractive price and it will be very interesting to see how the different markets respond,” he said. “Even people in the commercial domain have interest.”

Sikorsky is already delivering an automated rig approach software on S-92 helicopters, which allows oil companies to more easily access offshore oil rigs in bad weather, he said.The company also announced plans to team an optionally-piloted MURAL aircraft with an autonomous unmanned ground vehicle for an 18-month demonstration sponsored by the Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center. During the final demonstration, the aircraft and UGV will investigate a contaminated area similar to the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, said Cherepinsky.

Japan used robots throughout the Fukushima meltdown to survey areas that were too radioactive for humans to enter, and it also used manned helicopters to dump water on the reactor, VanBuiten said. Having a collaborative team of UGVs and unmanned aerial vehicles would have been game changing, he added.

Flying unmanned aircraft would have allowed the country to accomplish more missions with less risk to pilots. “Imagine if they had the functionality to go from a crew of two to a crew of zero,” he said.

“Pick your oldest four [Black Hawks] … and have them dump water on the reactor” all day.

“You could just make them, in that case, an attritable asset, because it’s such an urgent need, such a dirty mission, and the value would be  great,” he added.

Topics: Aviation, Rotary Wing, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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