An S-76B commercial helicopter flew over a small crowd gathered at Fort Eustis, Virginia, landed in an adjacent field after adjusting to miss a vehicle, and rose up to hover perfectly motionless for several minutes. The mid-October demonstration was remarkable because the pilot carried out the maneuvers using supervised autonomy in an aircraft equipped with DARPA’s Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS). He operated the system via novel control interceptors and a tablet he had used for the first time just three days beforehand.
“Hovering in adverse winds is a task that consumes a human pilot’s attention, but automated flight control achieves ‘rock steady’ precision,” said Graham Drozeski, the DARPA program manager for ALIAS, explaining how offloading pilots’ cognitive burden frees them to focus on mission execution.
“Really, we want the pilot’s eyes and mind on the fight rather than holding an altitude. That’s the core focus of ALIAS: bringing the latest advances from unmanned aircraft into a piloted aircraft through an interface that provides fluid interaction with the autonomous capabilities.”
The U.S. Army pilot conducting the demonstration agreed, noting that as autonomous systems become more prevalent, aircraft systems can take on the role of a traditional co-pilot.
“The Army refers to this as Mission Adaptive Autonomy. It’s there when the pilot needs the aircraft to fly itself and keep it free of obstacles, so the pilot can focus on more of the mission commander type role. But the pilot is able to interact with the system to re-suggest, re-route or re-plan on the fly,” said Lt. Col. Carl Ott, chief of Flight Test for the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center's Aviation Development Directorate.
During the hour-long flight demonstration, Ott interfaced with the autonomous capabilities of the system to conduct a series of realistic missions, including aircrew tasks such as low-level terrain flight, confined area takeoffs and landings, landing zone selection, trajectory planning, and wire-obstacle avoidance.
Before climbing in the cockpit, Ott practiced the mission plan with the ALIAS simulator, a tool that could help reduce mission planning and preparation time for future operators, allowing them to rehearse maneuvers in advance.
Now in Phase 3, the Sikorsky engineers developing ALIAS have begun to integrate the system into a UH-60 Black Hawk for testing and flight demonstration in 2019. As the biggest fleet of aircraft in the Army and widely relied on by the Department of Defense, Drozeski said the Black Hawk is the ideal platform for ALIAS to quickly benefit service partners.
“We’ve chosen the Black Hawk as the platform we want to demonstrate full integration of ALIAS-type capabilities – all the circuit breakers and switches and instruments in the aircraft, so that the capability ALIAS provides to a crew member is really like a co-pilot,” said Drozeski. “It can fly routes, plan routes, execute emergency procedures, and do all that perfectly.”
Highlights of ALIAS’ flexible architecture include:
- The potential for integration onto multiple fixed and rotary-wing platforms, both military and commercial;
- Cockpit displays and human interfaces that support reduced workload and/or reduced crew, as well as improved safety, such as terrain avoidance;
- Full coverage of typical aircrew tasks and emergency procedures;
- The ability to integrate directly with existing air vehicle systems, subsystems, and mission payloads;
- Redundancy and software assurance to support certification for human occupancy; and
- The ability to rapidly integrate new applications including third-party algorithms and applications onto existing aircraft.