Sikorsky has conducted the first flight of its Optionally-Piloted Black Hawk (OPBH) helicopter during a demonstration at its West Palm Beach facility in Florida, the company announced on 21 April.
The flight took place at Sikorsky's Development Flight Center on 11 March and saw the OPBH demonstrate autonomous hover and flight operations while under the control of a man-portable ground control station (GCS).
This demonstration was an important milestone in the Manned/Unmanned Resupply Aerial Lifter (MURAL) programme: a collaborative effort between the US Army Aviation Development Directorate (ADD), the US Army Utility Helicopters Project Office (UH PO), and Sikorsky.
For MURAL, the UH PO is providing access to two UH-60MU platforms to which Sikorsky is applying the optionally piloted technology it has been developing since 2007. In 2013 Sikorsky signed a co-operative research and development agreement with the army to advance MURAL to a formal effort to demonstrate the flexibility and value of a full authority flight control system. The effort includes demonstration of expeditionary GCSs and precision control.
A major component of the OPBH is Sikorsky's Matrix technology, which was launched in July 2013 to significantly improve the capability, reliability, and safety of autonomous, optionally piloted, and piloted vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft by affording them a high level of system intelligence.
The MURAL programme is part of a wider US military effort to develop its automated re-supply capabilities on the back of the US Marine Corps' (USMC's) nearly three-year deployment of two Lockheed Martin-Kaman K-MAX unmanned helicopters to Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan.
Another ongoing effort is the Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System (AACUS) programme being conducted by the Office of Naval Research (ONR). In early April the ONR announced flight demonstrations of the K-MAX and Boeing's Unmanned Little Bird (ULB) in support of AACUS. Of particular interest in these tests was the use of a hand-held tablet to control the helicopters. According to the ONR, a Marine with no prior experience with the technology was given a hand-held tablet and 15 minutes of training during the demonstration tests at Quantico, Virginia.