The Sikorsky Autonomous Research Aircraft is being used to test the company's Matrix autonomous, optionally piloted aircraft technology. (Sikorsky Aircraft)
Positioning itself for future Army contracts, Sikorsky Aircraft says it is developing an unmanned helicopter sophisticated enough to skim treetops, negotiate emerging obstacles and identify a landing zone all by itself.
Such a vehicle would be ideal for the service’s cargo transport and other missions, company officials said as they sat down with C4ISR & Networks on Monday at the Association of the United States Army convention in Washington, D.C.
“You can run a lot more unmanned missions than you can with a pilot,” said Barbara Lindauer, director of business development for the company’s Autonomous Systems division, “because a pilot can only fly so many hours” before tiring out.
But round-the-clock cargo lifts don’t just bring more equipment. They also saves lives by reducing the number of trucks exposed to ambushes — a fact that has not been lost on the U.S. military in Afghanistan.
“The Marines and the Navy are already out there” with unmanned heavy lifters, Lindauer said, referring to systems like the K-Max robocopter, developed by Kaman Aerospace and Lockheed Martin.
Sikorsky is waiting to see if the Army will take the plunge with a program of record. In the meantime, the company is testing its solution on a modified S-76 called the Sikorsky Autonomous Research Aircraft, or SARA.
At the core of SARA is the company’s Matrix hardware and software kit that performs multi-level processing of the vehicle’s environment. This allows SARA to perform mission planning and terrain identification in addition to following waypoints.
SARA “is going to fly to the ground, so it has some of the needs of an unmanned ground vehicle. It has to be able to distinguish trees. It needs to be able to characterize its landing zones,” Lindauer said.
SARA flew in optionally manned mode for the first time in late July — a safety pilot was on board in case of an emergency — and Sikorsky expects to see SARA to go fully autonomous sometime next year.
In May, Matrix began being tested aboard a UH-60 Black Hawk as part of a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with the Army’s Aviation Applied Technology Directorate.