Sikorsky has unveiled an optionally-piloted test bed, allowing for autonomous operations either with or without people aboard, dubbed "Matrix". The programme currently uses an older S-76 and will add a UH-60M in coming months, but is designed to be platform-agnostic. Additional platforms will receive the capability, although Sikorsky officials decline to say which.
The aircraft has undergone five flights so far.
"We really think that the rotorcraft world is ready for autonomy in a big way, and that the opportunities that exist in our particular flight regime, which is the obstacle-rich environments and very challenging conditions in particular, lend themselves to autonomy and intelligence," says Mark Miller, vice president of research and development. "We have a very core capability that we're going to leverage here, and actually we've been working several years in the lab to develop these capabilities."
The programme's innovations lie in platform portability and contingency management, which have been major issues in prior autonomous platforms. Sikorsky's goal is to build a working programme such that a ground-based operator need only decide a task to accomplish and a rough location; everything else will be handled by the aircraft itself.
The choice of test bed platforms is purposeful. The UH-60M is the latest model of Blackhawk for the US Army, and used by militaries worldwide. The S-76 is a popular and trusted civilian platform already certified by the FAA - which is not coincidental.
"We certainly are aiming at some point to get a certifiable system," says Igor Cherepinsky, the company's chief autonomy engineer. "They've been receptive to our approach, [but] it's going to take a little time to show them what the system does and what the approach is, which is a lot of reason we're flying the S-76."