Sikorsky's optionally piloted vehicle technology used to fly Black Hawk helicopter for first time

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On May 29, a Black Hawk helicopter was operated with full-authority, fly-by-wire flight controls for the first time using a technology kit developed by Sikorsky.

The flight marked the official start to the flight test program for the soon-to-be optionally piloted aircraft. Follow-on flight testing will look to include envelope expansion throughout the summer leading to fully autonomous flight (zero pilots) in 2020.

“This technology brings a whole new dimension of safety, reliability and capability to existing and future helicopters and to those who depend on them to complete their missions,” says Chris Van Buiten, vice president, Sikorsky Innovations.

“We're excited to be transforming a once mechanically controlled aircraft into one with fly-by-wire controls. This flight demonstrates the next step in making optionally piloted – and optimally piloted – aircraft, a reality.”

According to Sikorsky, this is its first full authority fly-by-wire retrofit kit that it has developed that has completely removed mechanical flight controls from the aircraft.

Through DARPA's Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program, Sikorsky is developing an OPV approach, which it describes as “pilot directed autonomy,” to give operators the confidence to fly aircraft safely, reliably and affordably in optimally piloted modes, facilitating flight with two, one or zero crew.

The goal of the program is to improve “operator decision aiding” for manned operations, while also enabling both unmanned and reduced crew operations.

Sikorsky has been demonstrating its MATRIX Technology on a modified S-76B called the Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA). The aircraft has been undergoing testing since 2013, and has more than 300 hours of autonomous flight.

In March, Sikorsky announced that its S-92 helicopter fleet update will include the introduction of phase one MATRIX Technology that will bring advanced computing power to the platform. According to the company, this foundation enables adoption of autonomous landing technology.