The US Army will soon have a Black Hawk helicopter that can be controlled with a tablet

Picture: Getty Images

This looks like a routine helicopter flight over Fort Eustis, Virginia:

But for most of the hour-long trip, there was no one at the stick. The pilot was US Army flight test chief Lt. Col. Carl Ott, and he was flying it with this tablet he’d just picked up for the first time three days beforehand:

Ott flew the S-76B commercial helicopter over the small crowd, made a slight adjustment to miss a vehicle, landed it in a field nearby, then “rose up to hover perfectly motionless for several minutes”.

It wasn’t a fully autonomous flight; rather, “supervised autonomy”. In the chopper itself was a human pilot, ready to take over if needed, because this was, after all, a test run.

Both pilots — on the ground and in the air — took turns at controlling the modified S-76B. The demonstration was to show off advances in the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program developed by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Lockheed Martin company Sikorsky.

DARPA sees a future not too far away where both helicopter and fixed wing pilots are optional extras.

“We’re demonstrating a certifiable autonomy solution that is going to drastically change the way pilots fly,” Sikorsky chief pilot Mark Ward said in the statement.

Sikorsky calls the ALIAS-enabled DARPA project SARA (Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft). The software and the hardware in action also showed SARA was capable of automated takeoff and landing, dodging obstacles at low altitude, and choosing safe landing zones.

The idea, Ward said, was to “allow pilots to focus on their missions”.

“This technology will ultimately decrease instances of the number one cause of helicopter crashes: Controlled Flight Into Terrain.”

That’s CFIT if you’re really getting into the acronyms now.

Graham Drozeski, the DARPA program manager for ALIAS, said offloading pilots’ “cognitive burden” allowed them to focus on mission execution.

“Hovering in adverse winds is a task that consumes a human pilot’s attention, but automated flight control achieves ‘rock steady’ precision,” he said.

“Really, we want the pilot’s eyes and mind on the fight rather than holding an altitude.”

Sikorsky has already begun developing ALIAS to integrate it into a UH-60 Black Hawk for testing and demonstration in 2019.

You can watch more of the test flight in Virginia below:

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