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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Unmanned Army Black Hawk Passes Autonomous Flight Tests

As reported by Wireless Design Mag: Upon hearing “unmanned aerial vehicles,” most people probably think of those pesky drones flying over little league baseball games—not so much four-bladed, twin engine, 180 mph military choppers. But recently, the United States Army’s Black Hawk has passed a critical test in autonomous helicopter flight and robot teaming, an Army official said.

Flying autonomously, the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk successfully delivered an amphibious all-terrain vehicle (AATV) to a Florida drop zone last Tuesday. After picking up the AATV, the helicopter flew five to seven kilometers, delivering the vehicle to its specified ground location. The AATV (also unmanned) then proceeded to travel through a ten kilometer scenario, facing various chemical and biological hazards and relaying that data back to the chopper via satellite.
The success of the Black Hawk and AATV’s joint (autonomous) mission points to a new level of robotics emerging in the United States military. It also marks an important step in the venture to make the Black Hawk an optionally manned aircraft—something Sikorsky, the company that builds the Black Hawk, has been working on, following an announcement last year. Since then, the company has been conducting remotely piloted flight tests and advancing its hardware-software kit, dubbed the Matrix, to allow for greater self-steering.

The Army currently has 2,500 Black Hawks at its disposal, and refashioning them to include the unmanned technology would grant military commanders greater flexibility in prioritizing manned operations: crews could focus on more “sensitive” missions, while the autonomous vehicles would fulfill resupply missions without increasing fleet size.

Robert Sadowski, a roboticist for the Army's Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC), told Defense One, “If you can retrofit [the Black Hawks], you can do autonomous logistics when the crew is resting. It gives you the ability to have an enhanced operational tempo. It can be retrofitted across the older UH-60s. In fact, they’re trying to do that to show that it can be done.”