Unmanned Black Hawk Flies Logistics, Rescue Missions

Unmanned Black Hawk Flies Logistics, Rescue Missions

Unmanned Black Hawk flies.
Photo by: DoD

In a long-anticipated demonstration, an unmanned Black Hawk helicopter flew for a prolonged period, navigated varied terrain and performed tasks that helicopter crews would perform on the battlefield.

As part of a Project Convergence 2022 Technology Gateway exercise, the helicopter with no humans aboard carried out a medical resupply mission and a combined mission that involved cargo delivery and casualty evacuation.

The missions were carried out Oct. 12, 14 and 18 at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, by Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

An unmanned Black Hawk helicopter was successfully flown for 30 minutes in February at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, but the demonstration at Yuma was the first of its kind in length and capability.

In the first mission at Yuma, the optionally piloted Black Hawk flew 83 miles round trip carrying 400 units of real and simulated blood, totaling about 500 pounds. About halfway into the flight, the helicopter descended into a valley as low as 200 feet above ground level at about 115 mph.

The low level “allowed us to do terrain masking and demonstrate that capability, which would be useful in a contested resupply type mission,” Stuart Young, program manager for DARPA’s Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System, known as ALIAS, said during an online conference with media.

In another mission, the unmanned Black Hawk flew for 30 minutes with a 2,600-pound sling load underneath and delivered the cargo to a designated drop zone. The aircraft then was rerouted mid-mission to evacuate a simulated casualty, “to show that the aircraft could be diverted and change missions,” Young said.

DARPA’s ALIAS is central to the technology that allowed the uninhabited aircraft to fly. At the core of that system is Sikorsky’s MATRIX, an autonomous flight control system.

Among the objectives the team sought to get after at Yuma was increased safety, which included performing controlled flight into varied terrain and visually degraded environments.

The test also took into consideration the “cognitive burden of the pilots as we continue to grow into a more complex world against peer adversaries,” Young said.

“You can think about the notion that we can fly with two pilots on the aircraft and give them some safety aids that can help them … to fly a mission more safely,” Young said, suggesting that the aircraft can be flown with two pilots or just one if there aren’t enough pilots for some missions.

“We can go down to zero pilots as we demonstrated at Yuma, where we basically turned the aircraft into a [unmanned aerial vehicle], which gives a lot of operational flexibility for the maneuver commander and the commander’s ability to evaluate the risk calculus in a different way,” Young said.

Young pointed out that with an unmanned aircraft doing some of the heavy lifting, there is an opportunity for cost savings in training and maintenance.

“Essentially, we have demonstrated that it's now possible and really have [Army leaders] thinking about what they want to do with this capability that we have demonstrated,” he said.