During the Army Futures Command (AFC) Project Convergence, there was much excitement about the potential capability of autonomous Black Hawk helicopters. Following previous successful test flights, the US Army plans to continue towards a pilotless flight experience. There is a superior operational advantage to fly these helicopters autonomously in a variety of environments and military scenarios.
Here is what Lt. Gen Thomas Todd, chief innovation officer at Army Futures Command, told reporters during the Project Convergence conference: "My requirement was 'don't even bring it if it can't be flown fully autonomous. The point is that we have to take a step every year. We have to push ourselves to take steps."
Researchers want ALIAS to be able to carry out the entire flight mission, including take-offs and landings - and have the ability to overcome aircraft system failure or any other unforeseen contingency. There also is the potential of flying resupply missions into contested battlefields without posing risk to human pilots and flight crew.
The Black Hawk Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) started as a DARPA project using software designed to fly the helicopter autonomously. During a previous Project Convergence, onboard safety pilots monitored the helicopter as it simulated resupply missions with no human pilots.
In early 2022, DARPA flew the custom-outfitted UH-60A Black Hawk during a 30-minute test flight that was fully autonomous with no humans onboard. What makes ALIAS stand out is the design that doesn't require advanced avionics and software in the helicopter - a scalable solution that can be dropped in and easily removed.
The idea behind making helicopters autonomous is to reduce the workload for pilots, as they can be more actively engaged in mission management. Black Hawk manufacturer Sikorsky and the Army have worked together on autonomous testing for years, though breakthroughs have revealed themselves in the past 12-24 months - and testing should only accelerate.