Autonomous helicopter flight control technologies were recently put through their paces during a groundbreaking test sortie carried out in the US. This saw a Black Hawk helicopter carry out a historic flight over California's Diablo Range. There were US Army personnel onboard the helicopter but, for a period of this sortie, the Black Hawk flew itself.
The autonomous Black Hawk flight control demonstration occurred on 5 November but, one month on, details of it have only just been published in a US Army press release. It was carried out by the US Army's Research, Development and Engineering Command's (ARMDEC's) Aviation and Missile Center and it successfully showed that the Black Hawk could make real-time critical decisions in the low-level environment.
Terrain sensing, trajectory generation, threat avoidance and autonomous flight control all featured in this flight, which lasted two hours and used a specialised Black Hawk variant. Known as the UH-60A RASCAL (Rotorcraft Aircrew Systems Concept Airborne Laboratory), it's a fly-by-wire equipped test platform also fitted with the 3D-LZ laser detection and ranging (LADAR) system.
Autonomous Black Hawk Flight
The autonomous Black Hawk flight was carried out slowly, at a maximum altitude of 400 feet and a minimum altitude of 200 feet. At its conclusion, the advanced technology onboard was used to pinpoint a safe LZ (landing zone), firstly initiating a hover, then bringing the Black Hawk down and settling it on the ground.
"This was the first time terrain-aware autonomy has been achieved on a Black Hawk", explained ARMDEC's Lieutenant Colonel Carl Ott.
"The RASCAL aircraft was the ideal platform to demonstrate this technology. It provides a fully programmable, fly-by-wire flight control system and [has] advanced sensor interfaces for rapid prototyping of new concepts while maintaining the standard UH-60 hydro-mechanical flight control system as a safety backup", added RASCAL project manager Jay Fletcher.
The Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk has now served the US Army for over 30 years, and also equips the air forces of Austria, Brazil, Japan and Mexico, to name but four. A highly successful design, over 2,000 have been built and - as a general utility helicopter - the Blackhawk is capable of carrying loads including troops, light armoured vehicles or stretchers.
Image copyright US Army - Courtesy Wikimedia Commons