Collins Aerospace has launched a retrofit flight-control system in partnership with Sikorsky that can offer fly-by-wire performance to a range of rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft.
Designed to replace an aircraft's traditional mechanical controls, the new system additionally offers a roadmap to autonomous or optionally piloted operations.
Using a series of electromechanical actuators with magnetic couplings driven by an enhanced flight-control computer, the system has been developed and tested in conjunction with helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky.
Parts of the system made their debut on the airframer's SARA technology demonstrator – a modified S-76B – before the latest iteration was developed, making its first flight on 29 May aboard Sikorsky's S-70 Black Hawk Optionally Piloted Vehicle.
Optionally Piloted Sikorsky UH-60A takes first flight
Darryl Woods, general manager control systems at Collins Aerospace, describes the evolved hardware used by Sikorsky as "next generation".
Collin Aerospace is working to "productionise" the technology, says Woods, with an availability target of 2021.
It has seen interest from both civil and military rotorcraft markets "and more recently we are getting some interest from fixed-wing too", he adds.
Woods declines to disclose the size of the fixed-wing aircraft being considered for modification, although chief flight control engineer Steve Avritch says that "it is not going to happen" on small general aviation aircraft due to the cost involved.
"When you get to multiple pilot operations or larger drones, this is where the system makes sense," says Avritch.
Tests so far have been carried out by Sikorsky using a modified A-model Black Hawk in conjunction with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
However, the US Army will in late 2019 install the system to one of its UH-60s – likely to be an L-model example – to conduct a "parallel test programme".
Although Collins Aerospace has one eye on the vast fleet of older Black Hawks currently in operation, Woods says that "one of the [programme's] ultimate goals is a cut-in on the production line to make the [current] UH-60M a fly-by-wire aircraft".
Collins Aerospace's current pre-production system uses an enhanced flight-control computer, but the eventual production system will use the next-generation Vehicle Management Computer, which the firm has been developing since 2018. This will have both US and European civil certifications, says Woods.
No details were available on the cost of the system, but Avritch describes it as a "low-cost upgrade". That is partly driven by the system's design, which does not require changes to the hydraulic system or actuator, removing the need for requalification.