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Testing for Autonomous Helicopter Moving Forward
The test will take “the lessons learned of what we did on the UH-60M upgrade and what we are doing on other areas of our product line … [to make] it a more affordable, lower cost solution,” said David Zack, vice president of the U.S. government division for Sikorsky Defense Systems and Services.
In collaboration with the Army, the company first flew an optionally-piloted UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter — the manned/unmanned resupply aerial lifter, or MURAL — on March 11, 2014 as part of a demonstration in West Palm Beach, Florida. The test used a prototype fly-by-wire UH-60M and incorporated the company’s Matrix technology, which improves the capability, reliability and safety of autonomous, optionally piloted and piloted vertical take-off and landing aircraft. For the unmanned UH-60A, the company has to retrofit fly-by-wire systems on the older aircraft and then add autonomy systems.
Similar to the UH-60M test, the unmanned UH-60A will demonstrate the ability to perform a cargo-lifting mission while being controlled from the ground.
Jeff Hanke, director of Army and Air Force programs for Sikorsky Defense Systems and Services, said the autonomy kit that will be added to the UH-60A is key to reducing the Army’s costs and logistical footprint. By “having a retrofittable kit that allows you to take an existing UH-60A or L and turn it into an autonomous vehicle, you’re not adding to the footprint that the U.S. Army already has, and the brunt of the cost of these systems is the logistics footprint.”
He compared that to the Marine Corps’ effort to add the K-MAX — Lockheed Martin and Kaman Aerospace’s version of an unmanned cargo-lifting helicopter — as an autonomous vehicle to its inventory. “They’re adding a different vehicle, different spare parts, a different logistics footprint,” Hanke said.
Jay McConville, Lockheed’s director of business development for unmanned integrated solutions, defended K-MAX stating that the aircraft “is an affordable, safe and low-maintenance solution for cargo resupply operations, as well as many other potential missions.” Since returning from a nearly three-year deployment with the Marine Corps, Lockheed has continued to extend and mature the helicopter’s onboard technology and autonomy for defense operations, he said in an email.
The Sikorsky executives said they see an autonomous capability being a potential upgrade in future Black Hawks. “We think that it’s directly applicable with the work that we’re doing on [advanced] flight control laws and definitely applicable to the Black Hawk as a drop-in or upgrade in the future,” Zack said. He noted that the Army would decide the timing for that sort of advancement.