‘Optionally piloted’ Black Hawk helicopter clears tests; future missions to go ‘fully unmanned’

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American aircraft manufacturer Sikorsky announced that its “optionally piloted” Black Hawk helicopter, which has been in development since 2007, is ready for prime time.

Working in cooperation with the U.S. Army, Sikorsky’s Optionally Piloted Black Hawk (OPBH) conducted flight operations while under the control of a “man portable Ground Control Station (GCS),” the company said Monday. The tests were conducted March 11 at its West Palm beach facility.


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“Imagine a vehicle that can double the productivity of the Black Hawk in Iraq and Afghanistan by flying with, at times, a single pilot instead of two, decreasing the workload, decreasing the risk, and at times when the mission is really dull and really dangerous, go it all the way to fully unmanned,” said Chris Van Buiten, vice president of Technology and Innovation, on Sikorsky’s website.

Geopolitical risk company IHS Janes reported that the successful tests were an “important milestone” for the company’s Manned/Unmanned Resupply Aerial Lifter (MURAL) program. The tests pave the way for a day when Marines with no prior flying experience could take control of a helicopter if needed.

In April, Marines were given special tablets and 15 minutes of training before being told to fly Boeing’s Unmanned Little Bird (ULB), IHS Janesreported Thursday. The tests were conducted by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) for its Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System (AACUS) program.

The results were promising.

“The Marine was able to quickly and easily program in the supplies needed and the destination, and the helicopters arrived quickly, even autonomously selecting an alternative landing site based on last-second, no-fly-zone information added in from the Marine,” the ONR said, IHS Janes reported.

Similar projects are also underway by the Pentagon’s research agency tasked with developing breakthrough technology. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is working on a system called the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS), which would replace up to five crew members on military aircraft.


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The creation of the technology will allow up to five crew members on military aircraft to be replaced, making the lone human operator a “mission supervisor.”

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