Sikorsky Launches Autonomy Research Program

By Graham Warwick
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology
August 05, 2013
Credit: Ted Carlson/Sikorsky Aircraft

Autonomy does not have to mean unmanned, and the potential to increase safety, reliability and capability across a range of missions and platforms—including manned and optionally piloted—is behind Sikorsky's launch of a multi-year research program to develop autonomous technology for vertical flight in demanding environments.

The Matrix Technology program is modeled on Sikorsky's X2 Technology demonstration, a $50 million internally funded effort that culminated in 2010 with a coaxial-rotor compound helicopter achieving 250 kt. in level flight, and led to industry-funded development of the S-97 Raider light tactical helicopter. As with the X2, the Matrix program has key performance parameters (KPP), milestones and deliverables—including the first flight last week of an S-76 demonstrator in autonomous mode. This is to be followed in the fourth quarter by an unmanned cargo mission with a UH-60MU fly-by-wire (FBW) Black Hawk.

“This is not 'me too' autonomy,” says Mark Miller, vice president for research and engineering. “We are addressing the specific and unique needs of rotorcraft and vertical lift, where we see the biggest untapped potential for autonomy.” Sikorsky sees in autonomy the ability to fly more missions, less limited by pilot availability, adverse weather or restricted visibility; fly missions more effectively, by eliminating sources of pilot and operator error; enable new missions in dangerous environments or with long durations; and reduce ownership cost by increasing reliability, reducing crewing and improving safety.

On one level, Sikorsky is catching up with the unmanned industry, but while high-altitude surveillance aircraft are automated, they do not fly in a stressing environment. And though small UAS fly missions autonomously, operators can afford to lose them. The autonomous rotorcraft Sikorsky envisions have significant value and operate at low altitude, so they require manned levels of reliability.

“Autonomy has been around a long time, with high-flying UAVs,” says Miller. “It is coming to vertical lift, but at a lower level, with dual redundancy, minimal contingency management and low control authority. We are targeting high redundancy, high bandwidth, full authority—and FAA certification.” To achieve this, Matrix will build on Sikorsky's “sound, solid” experience with FBW and advanced control laws for the RAH-66 Comanche, CH-148 Cyclone, UH-60MU, X2, CH-53K and Raider programs.

“Fly-by-wire is a third or half step to autonomy,” says Igor Cherepinsky, chief engineer for autonomy. “There is a human on board, but they are directing the vehicle, not managing the low-level control.” The goal with Matrix is to increase onboard system intelligence to a level where “the human operating the vehicle is an expert who understands the mission better than the aircraft itself,” he says.

“The mission expert may be miles away, or in the vehicle doing tasks other than basic pilotage,” says Teresa Carleton, vice president for mission system integration. “It is not just about moving the operator from the aircraft to a remote ground-control station,” she says. “It's about providing more capability in the vehicle, increasing the system intelligence to enable true autonomy and reduce the overall footprint.” Using high-level commands enabled by the onboard autonomy, an operator on the ground will be able to manage multiple aircraft to reduce system cost.

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