Sikorsky Progresses on Spectrum of Autonomous Technologies


Sikorsky Progresses on Spectrum of Autonomous Technologies

Monday, Feb 29, 2016

Sikorsky’s Innovations group continues to progress on a spectrum of autonomous technologies as it preps its third optionally piloted helicopter for demonstration trials early next year. The company has been retrofitting a 1979 UH-60A obtained from the U.S. Army with a kit that incorporates its complete Matrix technology from full-authority control to other technologies that pave the way for autonomous missions. “We want to demonstrate the fact that you don’t have to design this technology in new aircraft. You can retrofit it in old aircraft and retrofit it in a reliable fashion,” said Igor Cherepinsky, chief of Sikorsky’s Autonomy Programs.

The aged Black Hawk is the next step of Sikorsky’s Matrix program, which has demonstrated a range of autonomous capabilities from technologies that assist the pilot to aircraft remotely controlled on the ground that can interface with remote-controlled ground vehicles.

The program, Cherepinsky said, is designed to look at “a spectrum of what is needed most for assistance. That goes anywhere from making current products safer and easier to fly…to automating missions where the pilot starts to become more of a mission operator or a mission manager.” Sikorsky is exploring possibilities where the operator could be in the back of the aircraft or on the ground.

“That is the spectrum of what we’re working on. It really isn’t just about the fact we hope to remote control our aircraft or fly without a human being on board,” he said.

“There are things we can do to enhance safety and reliability of helicopters and enable our pilots to do missions that we can’t do today,” added Mark Miller, v-p of research and engineering for Sikorsky Aircraft. Noting that helicopters operate in stressful obstacle-rich environments, he said the program is designed to address those challenges with built-in safety redundancies. “Our aircraft are critical assets. These are large-scale helicopters so it’s not like a drone where you have an acceptance of some rate of failure.”

Testing Under Way for Civil and Military Applications

The program has involved two test vehicles so far, the Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA), a modified S-76, which has been flying since July 2013, and, a UH-60MU fly-by-wire helicopter that began trials in March 2014.

Equipped with a datalink and multi-spectral sensor package, the SARA aircraft is “really our flying lab for developing and maturing algorithms through hardware and …technology as a whole,” Cherepinsky said. The trials are “focusing on perception,” the ability to detect and avoid obstacles and operate in harsh conditions such as brownouts, he said. “We’ve developed a lot of sensing algorithms for things like landing zones and obstacle avoidance,” he added. This includes evaluating dynamic route planning, the ability to sense obstacles and reroute missions in real-time. Studies also have been under way on the man-to-machine interface.

The Black Hawk, meanwhile, initially conducted demonstrations of ground-control technologies to enable optionally piloted expeditionary operations and cargo resupply. More recently, Sikorsky teamed with Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to demonstrate cooperative missions between the helicopter and CMU’s unmanned ground vehicle.

Miller has been encouraged that “the technology advances that we’ve made in this program have been significant. We’ve been very pleased with the pace at which we’re demonstrating a whole range of automation of different capabilities.”

Sikorsky has moved the first of the developed technologies into service, a software update for the S-92 that automates approaches to oil rigs. The technology brings the helicopter to a “standoff” distance of the rig and the pilot moves the helicopter over to final landing. FAA- and EASA-approved, the app “takes a very high-workload, higher-risk maneuver and makes it safer and highly repeatable,” Miller said.

This is the first of what the Sikorsky executives promise will be a series of technologies that will transfer into service, although for competitive reasons they are not specifying what might be next or when. But Miller said the company will “port” over the technologies as customers begin to accept the autonomous functions and certification authorities come on board. “Those are the big considerations. We are working that just as hard as if not harder than the actual technology,” he said.



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