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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Take the ‘Pilot Optional’ Pill: Sikorsky Pursues Autonomous Helicopter Ops with Matrix Technology

Challenges of the helicopter operational environment “really are a lot more difficult than a fixed-wing aircraft traditionally faces.”

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 officially launched the endeavor August 13 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.)

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.

 

Sikorsky autonomous research aircraft (SARA). Photo courtesy of Sikorsky Aircraft

 

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 as 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.”

 

Sikorsky debuted Matrix at AUVSI Unmanned Systems 2013 in Washington, DC. Photo by Woodrow Bellamy III

 

Two of the centerpieces to the program are a fly-by-wire S-76 testbed 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 research and development agreement with the U.S. Army.

Sikorsky Innovations is leading the Matrix effort, which is in its second year of operation. The division developed the X2 and subsequent S-97 Raider, and will develop the Joint Multi-Role (JMR) technology demonstrator with teammate Boeing (JMR is the precursor to Future Vertical Lift, medium category). The Innovations group has headquarters in Stratford, Conn., “but it’s really a virtual organization,” Miller noted. “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.

(Read the full story in the September 2010 print edition of Rotor & Wing.)

Related: Technology News

 

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