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Iconic Black Hawk Helicopter Flies Unmanned For The First Time

Historic flight simulates movement through Manhattan skyline

Photo Credit : Lockheed Martin-Sikorsky


UH-60A Black Hawk ‘Optionally Piloted Aircraft’ on its first unmanned flight

In a landmark moment for unmanned flight, the iconic American military helicopter Black Hawk was flown without anyone on board for the first time on February 5. 

The UH-60 Alpha model Black Hawk flew entirely unmanned for 30 minutes over Fort Campbell, Kentucky, on February 5, and then again for a shorter duration on February 7, helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky announced in an online briefing on February 8. 

During the first unmanned flight as part of the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)’s Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) programme, the Black Hawk simulated a flight through the Manhattan skyline to demonstrate manoeuvre and control in a dense environment.

It took six years of effort by DARPA and the Lockheed Martin-owned Sikorsky to make the moment happen. In all earlier flights under the ALIAS programme, there was always a pilot on board as a back-up to cater to failure. 

ALIAS is part of US efforts to make both the current and future military helicopter fleets optionally manned.

Details of the historic flight were provided by DARPA program manager Stuart Young and Sikorsky Innovation director Igor Cherepinsky in the online briefing. 

The aircraft performed pre-flight checks before take-off, and then flew through a simulated Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) system depicting the dense and complex Manhattan skyline. The unmanned 6,350 kg chopper weaved through Manhattan skyscrapers autonomously before landing by itself. 

DARPA and Sikorsky have invested $160 million in the ALIAS program, which is scheduled for completion by the end of this year, Young disclosed.  

ALIAS provides operational flexibility to the user, he explained.  “This includes the ability to operate aircraft at all times of the day or night, with and without pilots, and in a variety of difficult conditions, such as contested, congested, and degraded visual environments,” Young added.

ALIAS will also allow flying in conditions that normally ground a helicopter.

A leading cause of mishaps in military aviation is a combination of human error and poor visibility. The innovations are meant to create systems that will take the burden off pilots in such situations and minimise the potential of error. 

A contributing feature in the unmanned Black Hawk flight is Sikorsky’s MATRIX autonomy system which is designed to reduce pilot workload and enable chopper flying in degraded conditions characterised by limited visibility or poor communications, Cherepinsky said. 

“This unique combination of autonomy software and hardware will make flying both smarter and safer,” added Young, pointing out that reduced workloads can enable the pilots to focus on “mission management instead of mechanics”. 

ALIAS looks set to be incorporated into the Future Vertical Lift programmes of the US.  

Tags assigned to this article:
Unmanned flight Black Hawk Sikorsky lockheed martin DARPA