Optionally piloted technology tested on Black Hawk; Sikorsky says will lead to fully autonomous flights

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. -- a Lockheed Martin company -- reports that it has tested a technology kit for the first time to operate a Black Hawk helicopter with full-authority, fly-by-wire flight controls. The recent flight, said company officials, was the initial foray of the flight test program for the soon-to-be optionally piloted aircraft.

This is the first full-authority, fly-by-wire retrofit kit from Sikorsky that has completely removed mechanical flight controls from the aircraft. Sikorsky -- as part of the  Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program -- is developing an  approach it calls "pilot-directed autonomy" that aims to give operators the confidence to fly aircraft safely, reliably, and affordably in optimally piloted modes, thereby enabling flight with two crewmembers, a single crewmember, or no crew at all. The program aims to aid operator decision-making while at the same time enabling both unmanned- and reduced-crew operations.

Chris Van Buiten, vice president, Sikorsky Innovations, said of the initial test: "This technology brings a whole new dimension of safety, reliability, and capability to existing and future helicopters and to those who depend on them to complete their missions. We're excited to be transforming a once mechanically controlled aircraft into one with fly-by-wire controls. This flight demonstrates the next step in making optionally piloted – and optimally piloted – aircraft a reality."

Company documents reveal that follow-on flight testing will include envelope expansion throughout mid- to late 2019, leading to fully autonomous flight (zero pilots) in 2020.