The Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft performs a confined area landing at Sikorsky's Development Flight Center in West Palm Beach, Fla. (Sikorsky)
WASHINGTON — Sikorsky has unveiled a new block of technologies the company claims could revolutionize automated vehicles.
The Matrix suite of technology is a collection of software algorithms designed to introduce a higher level of autonomy in airborne vehicles. The company plans to formally introduce the technology at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference Aug. 12 in Washington, D.C.
“Don’t think of this as a UAV,” Igor Cherepinsky, Sikorsky’s chief engineer for autonomy, said in Monday interview “It’s a set of artificial intelligence algorithms helping humans do their missions. There are lots of missions you don’t need humans nearby.”
The goal of Matrix is to create the option of removing a human controller entirely from the equation, with the software taking in situational data and information, processing it and making decisions on how the aircraft should proceed.
“We’re aiming for much higher levels of intelligence when you can say ‘go get this cargo’ and it does. Think of mission specialists operating these, not pilots,” Cherepinsky said.
The program could be especially useful for missions in which human pilots would struggle, such as launching into a sandstorm or landing on an aircraft carrier being thrown around by waves. With the Matrix system guiding the aircraft, these pilot challenges would essentially be removed.
“We’re going to up mission-available rate, mission-success rate, the missions that we fly because of the augmentation will be more effective and you’re going to be able to launch missions with this capability that you couldn’t with purely a manned aircraft,” claims Mark Miller, vice president for research and engineering. “The value proposition is significant.”
But to make the use of Matrix realistic, Sikorsky officials acknowledge they need to prove serious leaps in reliability for the system.
“When you think of typical loss rates for unpiloted aircraft, it is one in 1,000 flight hours,” Miller said. That’s an acceptable rate for small, cheap drones, but one that becomes cost prohibitive if it involves larger, more expensive systems like a military helicopter. When you get into the cost of these larger assets, that translates into unacceptable rates. “So we’re looking at one in 100,000 hours versus one in 1,000. That’s obviously a lot better, from a pure cost perspective.”
To prove its capabilities, the Matrix team has created a mobile lab of sorts on an old S-76 commercial helicopter. Its first flight took place July 26, with a second coming roughly a week later. As testing ramps up, the goal is to have flights “at least once a day,” Cherepinsky said.
All tests are being conducted with a pilot in the cockpit monitoring the situation. The Matrix system is designed so that a pilot in the helicopter has control of turning the automated controls on or off, giving the option of taking over manned flight if need be.
Like Sikorsky’s X2 program, Matrix is self-funded; the company expects to pour “tens of millions of dollars” into testing and development, Miller said. Many of the same people who worked on that program, which proved that a rotorcraft could reach speeds of 250 knots, are focusing on Matrix. “The rapid prototyping outfit at Sikorsky is taking on autonomy just like we took on speed,” Miller said.
If the technology is successful, it could serve in a number of military applications. The company is particularly interested in automating cargo movement, and to that end expects to run a cargo logistics demonstration this year on one of two UH-60M Blackhawks that have been prepared with a fly-by-wire system.
While Sikorsky is focusing on rotorcraft, Matrix is designed to be platform agnostic and could potentially fit into a fixed-wing system. Miller used the word “pervasive” several times to describe the technology, emphasizing that it could fit into systems old or new alike with minor work.
Mike Francis, Sikorsky’s program lead for autonomy, added that autonomous systems have ramifications for a potential anti-access, area-denial situation, where an enemy could attempt to hack or jam the link between a UAV and its operator.
“Autonomy is really the next step in having an insurance policy against the current situation of needing a full-time, continuous link from humans on the ground to the airplane,” Francis said. “That link is the most fragile part of the system. It’s the thing that you can lose. Autonomy allows you to operate in those circumstances with confidence.”
With an eye on the civil mark, Sikorsky has been in contact with the Federal Aviation Administration, seeking clearance to fly what would essentially be an unmanned system in US airspace. “We’re finding they are very thorough, but we think alike on many subjects so that’s making it easier,” Miller said.