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Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sikorsky’s Matrix Technology Seeks to ‘Execute Missions Within a Virtual View of the World’

By Andrew Parker, Editor-in-Chief

Sikorsky Aircraft has uncovered its future plans for unmanned and optionally piloted flights in the helicopter industry and it starts with a name: Matrix Technology. The company “took the red pill” on August 13 with the official launch of the endeavor at AUVSI’s Unmanned Systems in Washington, DC.
 

Representatives from Sikorsky explained various elements of the program to Rotor & Wing and sister publication Defense Daily during an Aug. 8 teleconference with Mark Miller, vice president of research and engineering; Teresa Carleton, vice president of mission systems integration; Igor Cherepinsky, autonomy chief engineer; and Mike Francis, autonomy lead for United Technologies Research Center. (The research arm of Sikorsky’s parent company, UTC, is assisting with the algorithms.)
 

Matrix Technology demonstration at AUVSI in Washington, DC.
Miller described Matrix Technology as an “architecture of both software and hardware components, or it could be applications that enable autonomous execution of complex rotorcraft missions in close proximity to obstacles,” with an emphasis on improving safety and reliability.

In addition to military missions such as cargo transport and ship landings, Miller noted that Matrix will have applications for the commercial side, including logistics, search and rescue (SAR), “operations back and forth to rigs, police, border patrol, pipeline/utility surveillance – there’s just a number of missions that lend themselves well in the civil arena to this technology.”
Sikorsky has dedicated “tens of millions” in internal company dollars to the Matrix program as part of its R&D initiatives. The initial stage of the program is funded through 2014, and the company has set up key performance parameters (KPPs), a series of test flights and specific budgetary objectives to ensure that the effort continues its trajectory.
 

“If you look at today’s autonomous vehicles, most of them are fixed-wing and fly high and out of the clutter,” noted Carleton. “The challenges associated with the environments that helicopters fly in every day really haven’t been solved yet. So the KPP program and the test flights aim to demonstrate that our Matrix Technology can indeed solve those complex challenges with very high reliability and at good cost so that we’re providing value to the customer.”
 

Carleton continued that Sikorsky views the term “optionally piloted” as “taking this technology and being able to apply it to many different scenarios.” One likely scenario, she remarked, is “having the autonomy system operate like a virtual second pilot or a virtual safety pilot. Not only do you reduce crew costs, but that seat could be used for another revenue-paying customer.”
 

Two of the centerpieces to the program are a fly-by-wire S-76 test-
bed known as Sikorsky autonomous research aircraft (SARA) and a UH-60M Black Hawk demonstrator that will join the testing program in late 2013. SARA conducted its first flight on July 26. Sikorsky will employ the fly-by-wire UH-60M testbed in a cargo logistics demonstration as part of a cooperative R&D agreement with the U.S. Army.
 

Sikorsky Innovations is leading the Matrix effort, which is in its second year of operation. The division designed and built the X2 and subsequent S-97 Raider, and will develop the Joint Multi-Role (JMR) technology demonstrator in partnership with teammate Boeing. The Innovations group has headquarters in Stratford, Conn., “but it’s really a virtual organization,” Miller clarified.
“There are people all across all our sites – our Fort Worth integration center is involved, the research center at UTC is involved, the Development Flight Center in West Palm Beach, Florida,” where Sikorsky flew the X2 and the SARA testbed is currently housed, he said.
 

According to Cherepinsky, Matrix is targeting “increased reliability and safety. And that obviously starts with being able to control a vehicle with a high degree of precision and reliability. And that’s what fly-by-wire is all about.”
 

Sikorsky autonomous research aircraft (SARA) flying
near West Palm Beach, Fla.
Requirements vary from mission to mission, he continued. “For some missions, you may not want to be near the mission space, but for others you want human eyes to be right there,” Cherepinsky said. “That does not mean that the human is flying the aircraft, but the human is a mission manager and he or she is just controlling the flow of the mission, where the vehicle itself is executing everything.”
 

While the initial focus is on rotorcraft-specific testing, Matrix Technology could have future applications for fixed-wing aircraft. Miller elaborated: “The challenges we’re facing – I came out of the fixed-wing world from Lockheed Martin Skunk Works and when I started working at Sikorsky 13 years ago, and you look at the types of things for helicopters that we asked them do – really are a lot more difficult than a fixed-wing aircraft traditionally faces.” The challenge of “encountering obstacles low to the ground and quickly being able to react, which gets solved with Matrix Technology, clearly could be ported to fixed-wing applications as well,” he continued.
 

The program is “creating a virtual view of the world, and then we’re executing missions within it, that’s kind of the Matrix theme,” Miller explained. “But it’s our technology branding for everything from an app to a fully autonomous vehicle.”
 

Carelton added that Matrix will “continue to evolve beyond 2014 as we look for opportunities to increase capability with integration of new sensors or more advanced algorithms. It will continue to live and grow beyond the 2014 program milestone.”

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