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Black Hawk Completes First-Ever Pilotless Flight

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Sikorsky Aviation have flown a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter without aircrew for the first time.

As part of the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program, the optionally-piloted aircraft completed 30-minutes of pilotless flight over Fort Campbell, Kentucky, last week. Another short flight test was held on Monday.

During the trial, the autonomous Black Hawk demonstrated its ability to adapt to various mission environments and navigate through a simulated cityscape at normal speed and altitude, avoiding virtual buildings using Light Detection and Ranging.

“This historic flight marks the first time that a UH-60 has flown autonomously and builds on recent demonstrations at the US Army’s Project Convergence 2021,” Lockheed Martin said in a press release. “It illustrates how ALIAS-enabled aircraft can help soldiers successfully execute complex missions… with increased safety and reliability.”

Black Hawk Modifications

The Black Hawk used in the autonomous flight test was retrofitted with a Sikorsky MATRIX autonomy system designed to help pilots when flying in degraded environments.

The system changes the way aviators and aircrews execute missions by providing assistance when flying with limited visibility or without reliable communications.

The modified helicopter employs ALIAS for reduced yet safe crew operations and additional autonomous capabilities, such as automatically handling contingency events like aircraft system failures.

“With reduced workloads, pilots can focus on mission management instead of the mechanics,” DARPA program manager Stuart Young explained. “This unique combination of autonomy software and hardware will make flying both smarter and safer.”

A UH-60 Black Hawk
A UH-60 Black Hawk equipped with MATRIX autonomy system. Photo: Lockheed Martin

Additional Advantages

Lead test pilot Benjamin Williamson explained that the new capabilities integrated into the Black Hawk would allow pilots to “confidently switch back and forth” between autonomy and piloted modes at any point of their mission.

The system also supports autonomous flight in confined areas.

Williamson added that equipping the aircraft with ALIAS makes it capable of automatically detecting and preventing dangerous situations that lead to accidents.

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