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A US Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter recently conducted a fully autonomous flight without a “pilot,” a significant development advancing the curve in ongoing work to architect aircraft with increasingly more sophisticated levels of autonomy.

The Black Hawk took off from a runway at Fort Campbell, Ky, and performed a 30-min mission including pedal turns, maneuvers and various autonomous adaptations to specific mission environments, finishing with what developers called a “perfect landing.”

US Army UH-60 Black Hawk Helicopter - Pilotless Flight

The first-of-its-kind unmanned or “Optionally Piloted” Black Hawk flight emerges as a result of a coordinated program between Lockheed Martin, its Sikorsky subsidiary and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency using breakthrough hardware and computer algorithms to enable autonomous flight. The DARPA program, called Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) draws upon advanced computer automation and sensors to gather data, organize it and adapt as needed to specific mission demands by performing procedural functions without needing human intervention.

UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter conducts pilotless flight

UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter conducts pilotless flight

“With ALIAS, the Army will have much more operational flexibility,” Stuart Young, program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, said in a DARPA statement. “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.”

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This breakthrough could well be described as a long sought after culmination of years of research, experimentation and breakthroughs with AI and computer automation to achieve previously unanticipated levels of in-flight autonomy. 

Course correcting programs such as “fly-by-wire” have existed to a certain extent, and the Army envisioned measures of autonomy years ago during the inception of its Future Vertical Lift program, this development represents the beginning of a new frontier in military aviation. 

For example, using mapping, extensive databases and advanced algorithms, the Army has for years been pursuing its Controlled Flight Into Terrain program. This concept, beginning more than 10 years ago, involves using incoming sensor data, navigational specifics and maps to autonomously course correct or adjust a helicopter’s flight trajectory to avoid a collision. This was thought of as something of great importance in a potential warfare situation wherein a pilot might be injured or incapacitated.

Now, programs like ALIS take these initial measures of autonomy into a new realm of fully autonomously flying, something Army scientists, researchers and engineers have been working on for many years. There are certainly some missions, such as resupply, surveillance or certain kinds of attack, which could perhaps be better performed by an unmanned helicopter, the current thinking is that the unique attributes of human cognition are not expected to disappear anytime soon. 

U.S. Army Future Vertical Lift (FVL)

U.S. Army Future Vertical Lift (FVL)

Essentially, both are needed to complete the Army’s sought after vision of man-machine interface. In the early days of conceptual development of the Army’s now quite mature Future Vertical Lift program, this emerging technology was described in this fashion human-machine interface wherein advanced computer algorithms performed critical data gathering and processing functions while humans remain in a command and control function. The idea of man-machine synergy is based upon the recognition that there simply are just too many faculties and variables unique to human cognition which cannot be replicated by computers. 

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven - the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President - Center for Military Modernization