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Sikorsky plans first flight of autonomous Black Hawk

May. 14, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Sikorsky plans to take a UH-60A Black Hawk helicopter and use it as a proof of concept for a cargo carrier. (Pratt & Whitney)
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ORLANDO, FLA. — Sikorsky plans to launch an autonomous version of its Black Hawk helicopter, the company announced during this week’s Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International annual conference.

The helicopter giant will take a UH-60A and turn it into a proof-of-concept development cargo carrier. The goal is to show the rotorcraft can take off, fly and land safely while under control of a computer.

It’s not Sikorsky’s first foray into rewiring a Black Hawk for pilot-free control. Last year, the company rigged an aircraft to give it limited autonomy, although a pilot on the ground could control it by remote control. That program was known as the Manned/Unmanned Resupply Aerial Lifter.

But the goal of high-level autonomy makes this a greater challenge, and one that draws off the company’s Matrix program, which first ran live, autonomous flight tests on an old S-76 in July.

“Matrix is maturing technology, advancing the technology readiness level in geek-speak, to give us the confidence to launch products,” said Chris Van Buiten, vice president of Sikorsky Innovations. “That demonstration and the technology demonstration we did with the autonomous Black Hawk … that gave us the confidence to say let’s start prototyping the first product.”

As with other recent Sikorsky technology development efforts, the company is self-funding the program.

One major issue facing an autonomous Black Hawk program is the cost if one of the machines goes down. Unlike small, cheap unmanned systems that can easily be replaced, a large Black Hawk loaded with cargo could cost millions if it crashes. Sikorsky is aiming for a 1/100,000 loss ratio with its system, which Van Buiten calls “simple math.”

“We’re doing everything the hard way but the right way, to get to that loss rate, because to do otherwise would be unacceptable for these large systems,” he said.

But basing a program on the Black Hawk, already rated highly for safety, helps in that regard. The company is also investing in high grade software and developing redundancies through the aircraft. That could drive the cost of the unit up — Van Buiten would not comment on how much the company expects the aircraft to cost — but the availability of older Black Hawk systems gives a base that Sikorsky can build on.

“If we took the technology and put it in the brand new Black Hawk, it’s a pretty expensive system, a brand new procurement — there’s lots of challenges,” Van Buiten said. “We have a neat intersection that there are thousands of Black Hawks around the world and they’re starting to retire.

Although there is no formal timeline for the program to take its first flight, Van Buiten said it would likely be more than 14 months before the program can take off.

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