WASHINGTON: The Army and Sikorsky are converting a pair of aging UH-60 Black Hawks to use cutting-edge automation and fly-by-wire controls, with side-by-side formation flights planned for late 2021. A successful demonstration could pave the way both for upgrades across the entire helicopter fleet – not just Black Hawks – and for the next-generation Future Vertical Lift aircraft, which the Army wants to be “optionally manned” from day one.
Just replacing maintenance-intensive mechanical and hydraulic controls with all-electric fly-by-wire would be a major improvement. But installing fly-by-wire also makes it possible for a computer to fly the aircraft or help a human to do so, potentially preventing deadly accidents due to human error.
“Everything that’s happening here,” Sikorsky Innovations director Igor Cherepinsky told reporters this morning, “is going into both of our FVL vehicles – and not just our FVL vehicles, it’s going across our entire product line.” The company is already working with Erickson to install ALIAS on civilian S-64 helicopters used to fight fires.
Sikorsky’s automation work has been partially funded for several years by DARPA, which calls the program ALIAS, Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System. (Sikorsky calls it Matrix, which means nothing but sounds cool).
Besides being an awkward contrived algorithm, the DARPA name undersells how thoroughly the software can replace a human. As early as 2018, Sikorsky was able to take a person with no pilot training, hand them a tablet, give them 45 minutes of instruction, and let them control an ALIAS-equipped helicopter. At that point, the computer was the one really flying the aircraft; the human was just telling it where to go – and they didn’t have to be aboard the aircraft to do that.
But replacing human pilots isn’t actually the primary goal of ALIAS. It’s designed to assist them. Sometimes that may mean flying the aircraft while the crew rests, brainstorms tactics, or conducts mission planning. But sometimes it may mean helping them see through sandstorms and dust clouds by fusing sensor data into a clear picture of what’s ahead. Or it may mean a human has their hands on the controls, but the computer can take over to avoid a collision or crash, rather like the emergency self-braking feature on newer models of cars.
Such safety features are particularly helpful at low altitude, where human pilots struggle to keep track of obstacles and one common cause of death is called “controlled flight into terrain.” That combination of uninterrupted attention and split-second reaction times is something human brains don’t do well, but computers excel at.
Sikorsky proved out the ALIAS system and fly-by-wire on a civilian S-76 before installing them on a converted UH-60A (aka S-70), the earliest and most primitive model of Black Hawk, which first flew in 1974. The Army’s Aviation Applied Technology Directorate at Fort Eustis is now installing ALIAS and fly-by-wire on a UH-60M, the current mainstay model, which first flew in 2003. While the conversion process is somewhat different between the “Alpha” and “Mike” models, Cherepinsky said, what’s being installed on both is the same package of hardware and software.
The ALIAS UH-60A is already flying and the ALIAS UH-60M will fly “sometime early next year,” Cherepinsky said. After that, the plan is for the two helicopters to fly together in formation – Army aircraft rarely go in harm’s way alone – as part of a major Army exercise if possible .
“We are hoping to get these two aircraft to participate together in some Army exercise, [not] just test for test’s sake,” Cherepinsky said.
The idea is for the two aircrafts’ ALIAS systems to connect over a short-range, low-probably of interception wireless link and share data nigh-instantaneously, effectively letting each aircraft see through the others’ sensors and get a much bigger picture of the world. Passing every bit and byte of data is impractical over a tactical datalink, Cherepinsky said, so “we’re working on algorithms that allow us to synchronize the world models between all of these aircraft” so they can update each other while using minimal bandwidth.
For example, two ALIAS helicopters coming in for a landing amidst a blinding dust storm could automatically warn each other of unexpected hazards and coordinate their movements to reroute around them and land safely, without hitting either the obstacles or each other. Today that process would require a hasty back-and-forth over radio as pilots try to make sense of what their sensors are seeing and explain it; ALIAS could simply show both aircrews the same picture of their surroundings.
How might the Army deploy this technology in the future? “They are super focused on FVL and quite frankly so are we, so most likely you will see this technology on our Future Vertical Lift aircraft first,” Cherepinsky said. But Black Hawks will be flying for decades before the last one is replaced, and the Army is eager to keep updating its current aircraft so they can operate alongside FVL in increasingly dangerous airspace.