US helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky has successfully demonstrated that a commercial helicopter can autonomously take off, fly a distance of 30 miles and then land safely.
Sikorsky, which is now owned by major aerospace defence firm Lockheed Martin, achieved this feat by utilising technology developed for Darpa's Aircrew Labour In-Cockpit Automation System (Alias) programme.
Darpa has long been concerned about the level of complexity that is currently required to man and fly military aircraft. Each aircraft has so many complex controls that a large, specially-trained crew is required, and emergencies can still be overwhelming.
To this end, Darpa launched the Alias programme in 2014 to make pilots' lives simpler by allowing military aircraft to take over and execute specific tasks or even a complete mission by itself.
Sikorsky started its autonomous aircraft research programme Matrix in 2013 and it has been developing software to enable the Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (Sara) – essentially a modified S-76 commercial helicopter – to deploy increasingly greater levels of autonomy and essentially become the helicopter equivalent of a drone.
How the autonomous helicopter works
Thanks to an $8m (£5.6m) award from the Alias programme, Sara was able to take off from Stratford, Connecticut and fly 30 miles (48km) to Robertson Airport in Plainville, Connecticut – with the entire flight executed and monitored by one single pilot in the aircraft's cockpit using a tablet.
The pilot first takes off and repositions the way the helicopter is facing using the Sara app to touch and drag. Then, to depart, the pilot can either select a pre-loaded flight plan on the screen or enter a new flight plan in real-time that the helicopter will instantly execute.
While in flight, the helicopter's computers automatically compensate for winds and ensure stable departure so the pilot doesn't have to worry about these problems, and when the helicopter gets to its destination, it hovers and then carries out the correct landing procedures.
"With the advances we've made, the capability for safe, unobtrusive optionally piloted flight is here. Alias is expanding the role of optionally piloted helicopters for early entry into established aircraft programmes," said Mark Miller, vice president of engineering and technology at Sikorsky.
"It has the capability of not only reducing aircrew size, but also changing the type and length of training required for safe operation."