The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) completed a major milestone in its Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program as it completed a 30-minute pilotless flight of a UH-60A Black Hawk helicopter, the agency said in a press release.
Even as we see autonomous flights taking off in the private sector, DARPA's fascination with the technology dates back to decades. The research agency ran projects exploring the area in the early 2000s but could not get a clear winner for the challenges it had set. Nearly two decades later, the technology has made impressive progress and the BlackHawk helicopter has flown recently, which wasn't built from scratch but merely retrofitted with the core technology of the ALIAS program to give it autonomous abilities in flight.
Seeking smarter and safer flight
Called Sikorsky Matrix, the technology allows the rotorcraft to be piloted autonomously or in support of a human pilot. The technology was tested by the company in a supervised fashion last year.
The recent DARPA test was a sequential progression in testing and important as it allows for automation to be added to aircraft that are currently in service. According to DARPA's press release, the technology is intended to help aviators execute their missions by providing assistance to them in constrained conditions, such as limited visibility or absence of communication.
Stuart Young, program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office said, "With reduced workloads pilots can focus on mission management instead of the mechanics. This unique combination of autonomy software and hardware will make flying both smarter and safer."
DARPA's efforts at automating flight have yielded many advantages over the decades. However, pilots are still needed to handle complex interfaces and unexpected situations. With advances in ALIAS, an entire mission from take-off to landing can be completed autonomously and the system can even kick into action during emergency situations, like aircraft failure, the press release said.
In terms of defense operations, the system is aimed at offering more operational flexibility to the U.S. Army. "This includes the ability to operate aircraft at all times of the day or night, with and without pilots, and in a variety of difficult conditions, such as contested, congested, and degraded visual environments,” Young added.
A helicopter capable of taking off and landing of its own might raise a few eyebrows among the skeptics and this wasn't missed by the agency itself when it tweeted.
It might look disconcerting to see a @LockheedMartin Martin @Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopter flying itself...but, don't worry, we've got this! DARPA's ALIAS technology just enabled the first ever flight of this iconic chopper…with nobody onboard. https://t.co/El9GkznLmw pic.twitter.com/TvxrmHQVLH— DARPA (@DARPA) February 8, 2022
The ALIAS system might be able to fly a helicopter on its own but does not have access to the weapons system. It is still an auto-pilot and not nearing a killer robot.