A newly minted objective for the US Army to transform most of its manned helicopters into optionally piloted vehicles (OPV) must overcome scepticism, but the rotorcraft industry is eager to meet the potential upgrade demand.

A non-binding, 25-year roadmap to guide investments in unmanned air systems predicts that 25% of all cargo missions by 2020 will be flown by helicopters operating as unmanned aircraft.

But the actual number is likely to fluctuate as a series of demonstrations planned by government proves how viable the OPV technology can become.

Glenn Rizzi, deputy director of the army UAS centre of excellence, acknowledges the 25% goal is among the most debated objectives in the army roadmap.

"Maybe we don't do 25% of all cargo UAS missions in the future" with OPVs, he says. "Maybe it will be only 5%. But maybe it will be 70%. Look how far we've come in eight-and-a-half years."

The army favours converting manned aircraft into OPVs rather than buying an all-new fleet of unmanned systems dedicated to cargo missions.

"Essentially our aircraft fly 8h a day," Rizzi says. "There's 16 more hours in a day. The fleet we already have that we already paid for could actually be doing other missions if we have a) more pilots or b) if we 'unmanned' them."

Sikorsky is among several US helicopter companies to experiment with unmanned versions of its rotorcraft. Two demonstrations are planned later this year, says Jim Kagdis, manager of advanced programmes.

In the first test scheduled for the third quarter, a NASA-owned UH-60A Black Hawk called the rotorcraft aircrew systems concepts airborne laboratory will demonstrate formation flight with a manned UH-60, Kagdis says.

In late 2010, Sikorsky plans to conduct a more ambitious demonstration called Mural. A UH-60M - perhaps the second of two fly-by-wire Black Hawks built under the UH-60M Upgrade programme - will haul an external load of cargo in unmanned mode.

"Once we get those two [tests] under our belt then we'll able to start adding detail to our roadmap," Kagdis says.

Source: Flight International