DARPA’s Black Hawk helicopter completes two missions autonomously

The event marks a key milestone in autonomy technology for military purposes.
Loukia Papadopoulos
A Black Hawk flying autonomously.jpg
A Black Hawk flying autonomously

Lockheed Martin 

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has successfully flown an uninhabited Black Hawk helicopter autonomously during two full missions, according to a press release published on Wednesday by Lockheed Martin.

Autonomous software

The aircraft’s autonomous software was engineered by Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky company. The helicopter managed to successfully safely and reliably perform internal and external cargo resupply missions as well as a rescue operation without a pilot on board.

“Performed Oct. 12, 14 and 18 as part of the U.S. Army's Project Convergence 2022 (PC22) experiment, the flights show how existing and future piloted utility helicopters could one day fly complex missions in reduced crew or autonomous mode. This would give Army commanders and aviators greater flexibility in how and when aircraft and pilots are used, especially in limited visibility or contested environments,” said the statement.

DARPA has joined forces with Sikorsky to develop the autonomy technology, called MATRIX, that will be used on rotary and fixed-wing aircraft.

"We believe MATRIX technology is ready now for transition to the Army as they look to modernize the enduring helicopter fleet, and acquire Future Vertical Lift aircraft," said Igor Cherepinsky, director of Sikorsky Innovations.

"In addition to increasing flight safety and reliability, MATRIX technology enables survivability in high tempo, high threat 21st Century Security environments where Black Hawk helicopters operate today, and DEFIANT X and RAIDER X helicopters could operate in the future. Uncrewed or reduced crewed helicopters could safely perform critical and lifesaving missions day or night in complex terrain and in contested battlespace."

A flight computer in full control

During the flight demonstrations, pilots activated the MATRIX system to give full control to the flight computer. The helicopter was then able to autonomously complete a long-endurance medical resupply mission and a cargo delivery and casualty evacuation combined mission.

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The first mission saw the aircraft fly 83 miles while loaded with 400 units of real and simulated blood – totaling 500 pounds. In the second mission, the helicopter lifted off with a 2,600-pound external load attached to a 40-foot sling, and flew at 100 knots for 30 minutes toward a designated landing zone. While in flight, the helicopter was redirected, simulating a scenario in which a threat needed to be neutralized near the primary landing site.

The event marks the second set of uninhabited Black Hawk flights this year. In February of 2022, DARPA completed a 30-minute pilotless flight of a UH-60A Black Hawk helicopter.

At the time, DARPA said the technology tested was intended to help aviators execute their missions by providing assistance to them in constrained conditions, such as limited visibility or absence of communication.

Sikorsky and the agency have now stated that they will continue to work on the use of autonomous Black Hawk technology for military operations, “such as aircrew support and operations, logistics and medical resupply, casualty evacuation, and commercial applications such as firefighting, cargo and urban air mobility.”

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