A modified Sikorsky S-76B commercial helicopter fitted with ALIAS autonomous technology (Picture: DARPA).
US Army pilots working with Sikorsky and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have for the first time demonstrated a helicopter that they say can fly itself.
In a series of flights, a modified S-76B commercial helicopter was operated at different times by pilots on board and pilots on the ground.
The aircraft was fitted with DARPA's Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program.
Lieutenant Colonel Carl Ott said the system has been designed to work with the pilot:
"It’s there when the pilot needs the aircraft to fly itself, keep it free of obstacles, so the pilot can focus more on a mission commander-type role."
The demonstration on October 29 at Fort Eustis in the state of Virginia has claimed several firsts in autonomous flight.
ALIAS hardware and software fitted to the helicopter allowed it to autonomously take-off, travel to its destination and autonomously land.
Cameras enabled the helicopter to detect and avoid unknown objects such as wires, towers and moving vehicles.
The helicopter flew low to the ground and behind trees and sensors determined a safe landing zone.
Programme Manager Dave Baden said the technology is important because it reduces the workload on the pilot: "Either to execute the medevac, the close air support mission or whatever they are there to do.
"Rather than concentrate on moving controls, they can concentrate on what really needs to be done”.
The US Army, DARPA and Sikorsky aim to improve and expand ALIAS for installation in both fixed wing airplanes and helicopters.
Over the coming months, Sikorsky says it will for the first time fly a Black Hawk military helicopter equipped with ALIAS.