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Black Hawk helicopter completes first-ever unmanned flight

UH-60A Black Hawk helicopter piloted by DARPA's Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program for the first time, Feb. 5, 2022. (DARPA/Released).
February 08, 2022

A Black Hawk helicopter was flown unmanned for the first time ever this week, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) first announced on Tuesday.

The DARPA Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System program successfully completed the first-ever flight over Fort Campbell, Ky., on February 5. The unpiloted flight lasted 30 minutes.

A second uninhabited flight was executed on February 7.

“The Black Hawk was retrofitted with Sikorsky MATRIX™ autonomy technologies that form the core of ALIAS and can change the way aviators and air crews execute their missions by providing assistance when flying with limited visibility or without communications,” a DARPA press release explained.

The agency described ALIAS as a “flexible, extensible automation architecture for existing manned aircraft” that allows aircraft to be operated safely with reduced crews. ALIAS also “provides a platform for integrating additional automation or autonomy capabilities tailored for specific missions.”

“With reduced workloads pilots can focus on mission management instead of the mechanics,” said Stuart Young, program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, in a statement. “This unique combination of autonomy software and hardware will make flying both smarter and safer.”

Over the past 50 years, the ALIAS program has contributed “considerable advances” to aircraft automation systems, as well as remotely piloted aircraft. The program helps execute a mission from takeoff to landing, including “autonomously handling contingency events such as aircraft system failures.”

“With ALIAS, the Army will have much more operational flexibility,” said Young. “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.”

DARPA said the Army is exploring ways to use technologies like ALIAS. The program plans to conduct another first later this month: the flight of a fly-by-wire M-model Black Hawk at Fort Eustis, Va.

Development and testing of unmanned military systems have increased in recent years, including aerial drones to assist combat and refuel other aircraft, and naval drones that conduct operations underwater and on the surface.

In 2020, the Navy said it was aiming for a “full spectrum” of both surface and underwater vehicles by 2030. The integration of unmanned vehicles will extend the Navy’s reach and allow for taking risks that would otherwise be avoided with manned vehicles.