Autonomous flights at the touch of the pilot’s fingertips

Airborne platforms take another step to full autonomy as Sikorsky’s S-76 helicopter completes a 30-mile self-governing flight for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)’s Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program. It’s a major milestone and marks the completion of Phase 1 for Sikorsky.

In 2015, awarded contracts to Aurora Flight Sciences Corp., Corp., and Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. to work on the ALIAS program, which focuses on making flights and maintenance easier on the crew. Each company team includes experts from the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, U.S Army, and NASA. (Apparently, marines didn’t make the cut.) Once the technology matures on this program, aviation crews will reduce as well as the pilot’s workload. What the program aims to do is to minimize the crew workload and not take them out of the equation completely.

[Editor’s note: Lockheed Martin announced the acquisition of Sikorsky Aircraft in November 2015, and is now known as Sikorsky.]

To achieve that goal, engineers equipped the S-76 with Sikorsky’s . The operator’s role in flying rotary and fixed-wing vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft is reduced, at the same time it gives the system enough intelligence to fly around obstacles. The technology was introduced in 2013 to field test software and hardware systems and improve flights.

Watch Sikorsky’s video of the flight demonstration from Stratford to Plainville, Connecticut:

The demonstration shows the pilot in control of the helicopter using a making the moment a bit surreal. The pilot is able to execute a flight from beginning to end with just his FINGERTIPS!

The technology here, in my perspective, will be monumental during scenarios. Once it reaches full operational capability, pilots should be able to land without fear of a crash. It would be as simple as playing a game on your tablet, with the only caveat that it’s in real-life.

This type of technology has been cooking in the labs for the past few years. It may seem as if we are taking small steps over a long period of time, but in reality we are taking huge leaps to having more autonomous systems. As the Federal Aviation Administration () figures out the congested airspace issues of the future, and DARPA continues its research on sense-and-avoid technology in unmanned platforms, this demonstration is just another step to the inevitable future where artificial intelligence (AI) systems will at the forefront of not just the battlefield in the military, but also in the commercial world.

Chris Van Buiten, Vice President of Sikorsky Innovations, the technology research group for the Engineering & Technology organization says, “what Sikorsky and DARPA are demonstrating is the successful and affordable integration of advanced technology onto existing legacy aircraft to not only set the stage for autonomous operations down the road, but also to immediately improve aircraft performance, reduce maintenance costs, and increase crew and passenger safety.”

Sikorsky engineers have started work on Phase 2 of the program, according to a Sikorsky press release. Phase 2 will focus on maturing the ALIAS system as engineers continue to conduct flight tests as well as make enhancements to the human interface.