For the better part of an hour on May 29, one of the oldest existing UH-60 Black Hawks was flown with a full-authority fly-by-wire flight control system that eventually could allow the aircraft to fly without a pilot on board.
Sikorsky [LMT] has developed a kit that removes all legacy mechanical flight controls from the aircraft and replaces them with its MATRIX technology to make it an optionally piloted vehicle. The company uses the phrase "optimally piloted vehicle" almost interchangeably because the system can act as a robotic co-pilot to a human operator or enable remote operation from the ground.
The flight marked the official start to the flight test program for the soon-to-be optionally piloted UH-60A. Follow-on flight testing aims to include envelope expansion throughout the summer leading to fully autonomous flight with zero pilots in 2020.
"Last week we had, in my mind, a historic flight for Sikorsky and perhaps for aviation, where we really got going in the fulfilment of the vision … of the optionally or optimally piloted vehicle," Chris Van Buiten, vice president of Sikorsky Innovations, said June 6 during a conference call with reporters. "There's the notion of a vehicle that can fly with two crew, one crew or zero crew, depending on the mission demands."
Through DARPA's Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program, Sikorsky is developing an optimally piloted vehicle (OPV) approach it describes as pilot directed autonomy to give operators the confidence to fly aircraft safely, reliably and affordably in optimally piloted modes enabling flight with two, one or zero crew.
The program aims to aid operators' decision making for manned operations while also enabling both unmanned and reduced-crew operations.
The OPV Black Hawk was equipped with the "foundational" fly-by-wire components of MATRIX and completed an "outstanding, safe first flight" May 29 lasting .9 hours at the company's development flight center in West Palm Beach, Fla., Van Buiten said.
It has flown three additional times, including once on the morning of June 6, according to test pilot Mark Ward. Flight test maneuvers during the first flight included hover at up to 40 knots and has been expanded to 80 knots, Ward said.
"We're working through some datalink issues right now, but in terms of the aircraft itself, it's performing very well," he said.
A similar, earlier version of the MATRIX system was flown in 2014 aboard what was designated a UH-60MU that retained the helicopter's backup legacy mechanical flight controls. Ultimately, the Army decided not to put MATRIX into production, but that version was not retrofittable to the fleet, said Igor Cherepinsky, Sikorsky's director of autonomy. The new OPV kit was specifically designed for the UH-60, but is retrofittable onto the Army's entire helicopter fleet and Sikorsky's commercial S-92 and S-97 rotorcraft.
Sikorsky has been demonstrating MATRIX on a modified S-76B called the Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA). The aircraft, which has been in testing since 2013, has more than 300 hours of autonomous flight. The company announced in March that its S-92 helicopter fleet update will include the introduction of phase one MATRIX technology that will bring advanced computing power to the platform. That foundation enables adoption of autonomous landing technology.
"The hardware that exists today can retrofit every single UH-60A, L or M or even our other products," Cherepinsky said. "From a software perspective, what is flying today is very similar … [but] much more autonomous, really aimed at collaboration between the ground crew and air crew allowing a multitude of concept operations; anything from two crew on the aircraft dealing with a very complex mission having autonomy assistance … all the way to the point where there is nobody on board and you have a ground operator really performing a mission – not remotely piloting, not remotely managing – performing a mission."
Working from the other end of the Black Hawk production spectrum, the U.S. Army has plans to outfit a most-modern UH-60M with the system but is about six months behind Sikorsky's test program.
"It's pretty interesting that the aircraft we put the system in is one of the oldest Black Hawks," Van Buiten said. "It's from one of the very earliest lots. It was originally an A, got kind of partial conversion to an L. So, pretty neat that one of the oldest Black Hawks has by far the most advanced control system. We did that to show that we could retrofit any of the Black Hawks."
"The Army is also installing a kit into a UH-60M, so one of the newest Black Hawks," he added. "Between those two, we're showing the ability to replace mechanical controls with this sophisticated digital system and enable the Black Hawk fleet to start enjoying these benefits."