Phase three of DARPA’s ALIAS aircraft automation system continues

Phase three of DARPA’s ALIAS aircraft automation system continues

Through the DARPA ALIAS program, Sikorsky is developing an approach it describes as pilot directed autonomy that will give operators the confidence to fly aircraft safely, reliably, and affordably in optimally piloted modes enabling flight with two, one, or zero crew on commercial and military aircraft.
United States Army pilots directed an optionally-piloted helicopter (OPV) through a series of missions to demonstrate technology developed by Lockheed Martin Corporation subsidiary Sikorsky Aircraft and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The series of flights marked the first time that non-Sikorsky pilots operated the Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA), a modified S-76B medium-size commercial helicopter, as an OPV aircraft.

SARA, which has more than 300 hours of autonomous flight, successfully demonstrated the advanced capabilities developed as part of the third phase of DARPA's Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program. The aircraft was operated at different times by pilots on board and pilots on the ground. Sikorsky's MATRIX autonomous software and hardware, which is installed on SARA, executed various scenarios including automated takeoff and landing, LIDAR- and camera-based obstacle avoidance, LIDAR-based automatic landing zone selection, and low-level contour flying.

The Army and DARPA are working with Sikorsky to improve and expand ALIAS capabilities developed as a tailorable autonomy kit for installation in both fixed wing airplanes and helicopters. The kit consists of a tailorable, drop-in, removable system with in-cockpit machine vision, robotic components to actuate the flight controls, an advanced tablet-based user interface, speech recognition and synthesis, and a knowledge-acquisition process for adapting the automation system to an aircraft.



Developers are also working on a version of the system without robotic actuation that instead aims to support the pilot by tracking aircraft physical, procedural, and mission states, increasing safety by actively updating pilot situational awareness.

Over the next few months, Sikorsky’s next steps will be to fly a twin-engine, medium-lift utility UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter equipped with ALIAS for the first time. The company is working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration to certify ALIAS and MATRIX technology so that it will be available on current and future commercial and military aircraft.



Sikorsky is working on integrating MATRIX technology into an optionally piloted Black Hawk for military applications. (Image source: Lockheed Martin)


“Future vertical lift aircraft will require robust autonomous and optimally-piloted systems to complete missions and improve safety,” says Chris Van Buiten, vice president, Sikorsky Innovations. “We could not be more thrilled to welcome Army aviators to the cockpit to experience first-hand the reliability of optimally-piloted technology developed by the innovative engineers at Sikorsky and DARPA. These aviators experienced the same technology that we are installing and testing on a Black Hawk that will take its first flight over the next several months.”

“We're demonstrating a certifiable autonomy solution that is going to drastically change the way pilots fly,” says Mark Ward, Sikorsky Chief Pilot, Stratford, Conn. Flight Test Center. “We're confident that MATRIX technology will allow pilots to focus on their missions. This technology will ultimately decrease instances of the number one cause of helicopter crashes: Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT).”

Through the DARPA ALIAS program, Sikorsky is developing an OPV approach it describes as pilot directed autonomy that will 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 will improve operator decision aiding for manned operations while also enabling both unmanned and reduced crew operations.

Lockheed Martin recently won a gold Edison Award in April for the Sikorsky MATRIX technology.


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William Kucinski is content editor at SAE International, Aerospace Products Group in Warrendale, Pa. Previously, he worked as a writer at the NASA Safety Center in Cleveland, Ohio and was responsible for writing the agency’s System Failure Case Studies. His interests include literally anything that has to do with space, past and present military aircraft, and propulsion technology.

Contact him regarding any article or collaboration ideas by e-mail at william.kucinski@sae.org.
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