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US Army pilots have taken the Sikorsky Autonomous Research Aircraft (SARA) through a series of missions to demonstrate autonomous technologies co-developed by Sikorsky and the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The flights marked the first occasion on which non-Sikorskay pilots have flown SARA, a modified S-76B.

"Future vertical lift aircraft will require robust autonomous and optimally-piloted systems to complete missions and improve safety," explained Vice President, Sikorsky Innovations, Chris Van Buiten. "We could not be more thrilled to welcome Army aviators to the cockpit to experience first-hand the reliability of optimally-piloted technology developed by the innovative engineers at Sikorsky and DARPA. These aviators experienced the same technology that we are installing and testing on a BLACK HAWK that will take its first flight over the next several months."

SARA, which has more than 300 hours of autonomous flight, successfully demonstrated the advanced capabilities developed as part of the third phase of DARPA's Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program. The aircraft was operated at different times by pilots on board and pilots on the ground. Sikorsky's MATRIX autonomous software and hardware, which is installed on SARA, executed several scenarios including:
• Automated Take Off and Landing: the helicopter executed take-off, traveled to its destination, and landed autonomously;
• Obstacle Avoidance: the helicopter's LIDAR and cameras enabled it to detect and avoid unknown objects such as wires, towers and moving vehicles;
• Automatic Landing Zone Selection: the helicopter's LIDAR sensors determined a safe landing zone;
• Contour Flight: the helicopter flew low to the ground and behind trees.

The recent Mission Software Flight Demonstration was a collaboration between the US Army's Aviation Development Directorate, Sikorsky and DARPA, working in concert to improve and expand ALIAS capabilities, developed as a tailorable autonomy kit for installation in both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.

Over the next few months, Sikorsky will for the first time fly a BLACK HAWK equipped with ALIAS. The company is working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration to certify ALIAS/MATRIX technology so that it will be available on current and future commercial and military aircraft.

"We're demonstrating a certifiable autonomy solution that is going to drastically change the way pilots fly," commented, Sikorsky Chief Pilot Mark Ward at the Stratford, CT Flight Test Centre. "We're confident that MATRIX Technology will allow pilots to focus on their missions. This technology will ultimately decrease instances of the number one cause of helicopter crashes: Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT)."

Through the DARPA ALIAS program, Sikorsky is developing an optionally-piloted aircraft (OPV) approach it describes as “pilot directed autonomy,“ that will give operators the confidence to fly aircraft safely, reliably and affordably in optimally piloted modes, enabling flight with two, one or zero crew. The programme will improve operator decision-making for manned operations, while also enabling both unmanned and reduced crew operations.

US Army pilots flew SARA for the first time recently, experimenting with optionally-piloted technologies and varying degrees of autonomy. (Photo: Sikorsky/Lockheed Martin)

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