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Helitech 2018: Autonomy to prevent helicopter fatalities

11th October 2018 - 10:38 GMT | by Beth Maundrill in London

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Safety is a key concern for all helicopter operators with a significant proportion a result of human error - increased autonomy provides the solution mitigating these accidents, including fatalities.

That is the view of the likes of OEMs such as Sikorsky which has embarked on projects to explore autonomous helicopter flight.

Under Sikorsky's Matrix programme the company has used an S-76 to test various levels of autonomy on board the aircraft up to fully autonomous flight.

‘Autonomy is the next evolution of flight control,’ said Igor Cherepinsky, director of autonomy programmes at Sikorsky Aircraft. He added that the Matrix technologies will be a solution that will reduce accidents caused by pilot error.

However, operators will have to accept they need to reach into their pockets to acquire such solutions.

The Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA) uses various sensor technologies to complete autonomous flight including Lidar and EO sensors.

Cherepinsky noted that what is currently being used on SARA is just experimental and the company is now working on making the Lidar sensors smaller and lighter.

‘The goal here is to make it light and cheap so we can actually produce it,’ he said.

The OEM is also looking to licence the technology so it can be integrated onto smaller platforms. With Sikorsky’s helicopter portfolio comprising of heavy rotorcraft this would open up more opportunities in both the civil and military market for the technology.

Sikorsky has been working as part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System programme for some years now on the Matrix.

Ten autonomous flight have been carried out. One of which involved landing the aircraft autonomously onto a simulated ship helicopter landing dock.

The tests took place in relatively calm waters using a 110ft barge in place of a naval vessel. While this kind of applications applies to the military market it could also be useful for offshore oil and gas operators.

Looking ahead Cherepinsky said that he would like to be able to test autonomous landing in up to Sea State Four.

Meanwhile, the company is also adding the Matrix to a UH-60 Black Hawk as it works on the US Army’s Future Vertical Lift programme.

However, the optionally piloted flight has not happened as soon as expected due to stumbling blocks which were hit when working on the 1979 UH-60A which is to be fitted with Matrix.

Despite this, Cherepinsky said that an autonomous flight could be expected soon.

One of the main concerns for military operations is to be able to operate in degraded visual environments (DVE). According to Cherepinsky, while Matrix does not provide complete DVE coverage it does solve up to 80% of the problem.

The Matrix solution is also data link agnostic and can operate without a data link at all. Cherepinsky noted that this was a key consideration because various services, nations and operators use different data links. 

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