In today’s modern world, it’s no surprise that majority of commercial flights are auto-piloted and technology companies the world over are investing in the development of autonomous driving vehicles. The implications of unmanned vehicle technologies are limitless when used in conjunction with manned support. As a result of new and improved innovations in autonomy, it won’t be long before these types of modernizations become a reality. This is true in every case with the exception of the pursuit of unmanned helicopters.
According to experts, the concept of an unmanned aerial vehicle could have the potential to improve upon a number of markets and industries, from transportation to emergency response and in defense. But in efforts to improve upon and conceptualize unmanned or even remotely piloted helicopters, there are a number of contributing factors that are posing challenges.
Some of the largest and most well-known aviation manufacturers, like Boeing and Sikorsky, are delving into the possibilities of autonomous or remote piloted helicopter aircraft. According to one expert who worked for a number of years in the field of search and rescue, even the slightest bit of autonomy teamed with manned response serves to alleviate the stress associated with the operation and decreases the workload for emergency responders. This a result he said of the system indicating where there is a problem that may not be visible to a pilot and reacting appropriately to repair or to recover from it.
The challenges posed in emergency response, say for example, in search and rescue are numerous. In order to deliver an effective and successful resolution, helicopters must be able to hover over turbulent seas and swells, they must be capable of a safe landing on an offshore rig when winds are gusting, be able to balance the aircraft by a single skid on a steep cliffside and and they must be piloted effectively enough to navigate through and around obstacles that are not evident on navigation charts. These challenges often pose serious risks to operations for the most seasoned and experienced human pilots.
Remote or unmanned helicopter piloting would require an additional amount of calculation that wouldn’t be necessary otherwise. This is because according to vice president of Sikorsky Innovations Chris Van Buiten generally, helicopters are called in to facilitate emergency response in obstacle-rich environments as opposed to the point to point transport between airfields that is typical of what an auto-piloted fixed-wing aircraft would experience. According to Van Buiten, “You’re usually not called out to a sinking ship on a sunny day, but rather off the coast of Alaska at night in the rain.”
In the defense industry, autonomous innovations are moving along at a rapid pace, despite the potential for challenges. Recently, Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences in a partnership with the Office of Naval Research newly developed autonomous aerial cargo/utility system integrated into a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter took off on its initial unmanned operation. The mission’s objective was to deliver gas, water, and medical supplies to Marines in California. The unmanned helicopter flew roughly two miles before touching down at Landing Zone Egret and after Marines on the ground unloaded the cargo, it took off again. Although the flight was short-lived, it’s success served as a watershed moment in the autonomous aerial cargo/utility system’s (AACUS) development. For the last eleven or so years, Lockheed Martin has been engrossed in the development of its own unmanned helicopter known as KMax, initially starting with remote-piloted and semi-autonomous versions that were responsible for completing supply delivery missions to Afghanistan.
The Sikorsky variation, the Matrix Technology system has undergone a number of tests onboard the Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft or SARA proving ground. SARA, a reimagined version of the Sikorsky S-76 commercial helicopter has completed an autonomous flight that extended for over 30-miles with takeoff, cruise, and landing all remotely executed by computer.
The success of the SARA’s flight was impressive enough to result in the system achieving the final phase of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) ALIAS program. The ALIAS program seeks to reduce the need for an onboard crew in the execution of aircraft operations, from take off to landing.
At the present, the company is attempting to integrate the Matrix system into a couple of UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters in efforts to offer the military pilot optional alternatives. Fans of the technology can look forward to demonstrations of the system in action later this year.
What these elements serve to tell us is that when it comes to unmanned flights, at the present, even in the delivery of cargo and supplies, there are just too many variables at play and although success has been achieved in remote or hands-free piloting, it’s still early days.
So what can we expect from aviation companies in the coming years regarding autonomy? Who’s to say? It’s obvious the end game would be a fully functional hands-free flight alternative for the transport of cargo infinitely more vulnerable than simple freight, like human travelers. Full autonomy would be a landmark achievement in pursuance of the fledgling air-taxi industry.
Additionally, it would serve to benefit the underserved piloting profession with the shortage looming and would have limitless implications on the commercial travel, military, and defense and global shipping industries. At this stage, it seems the most difficult to achieve aspect would be in the certification of unmanned helicopters who’s express purpose is in transporting human passengers. It could take a number of years before the type of technology required to guarantee a safe and secure flight becomes available
Aviation manufacturers actively pursuing autonomy in the transport of human beings have indicated that they will do with the same parameters regarding safety and reliability that they do in the development of all of their passenger aircraft.
Perhaps, for now, the solution lies in allowing for unmanned and manned teams to work in conjunction with one another. Especially in simplifying the pilot and crew overall workload. For example, in the case of emergency response helicopter piloting, autonomous systems may be used to overcome situational awareness in stress-inducing scenarios, like rescues at sea, or in war zones.
The point is a human touch to some degree will always be necessitated, even in the planning and coordinating of missions. Humans beings and their capacities to learn, adapt and achieve are what is responsible for crafting creative solutions to some of the world’s most intensive problems and then, in the developing of technologies to implement the solutions to them. And, let’s not diminish the value of the human touch. If you find yourself lost at sea or wounded in battle, you are going to want the reassurance that only the friendly face of your rescuer can deliver, autonomy and innovative technologies aside.