The U.S. Department of Defense and several startups are interested in simplifying and making autonomous control of helicopters and other aircraft. Among the interesting programs in this direction is Matrix Technology, which is engaged in the Lockheed Martin division of Sikorsky Aircraft.
The latter recently introduced a completely new concept for controlling a helicopter. Wired journalist Jack Stewart has written an article on the achievements of Matrix Technology. Editorial Vector publishes an adapted translation of the material.
To learn how to fly a helicopter, you will need months of classes in the classroom, on the simulator and in the air. Once I spent the whole day with the best Airbus instructors – and by the end, I could not even hold the helicopter evenly.
But last month, a group of U.S. military personnel, including one man who had never been in a helicopter, took off a Sikorsky S-76B in Fort Eustis, Virginia. They hovered over the adjacent territory, declined, changed their positions to evade another apparatus, and landed safely. The most interesting thing is that for conducting such maneuvers, they had enough instruction for 45 minutes.
“It’s pretty nice to watch the transformation from“ I have no idea what this system is doing, ”to“ now I can control this system “,” says Sikorsky helicopter pilot Mark Ward, who trained newcomers.
This does not mean that the “students” of Ward are now ready for full-fledged aerobatics. But the example shows the ease with which they can adapt to an illogical control system like in a helicopter.
As you might have guessed, this is not an ordinary helicopter. The device is controlled using a tablet, which allows pilots to use familiar gestures and movements during the flight as if they are playing or operating a quadrocopter.
Matrix Technology is the name of the Sikorsky program that minimizes or even eliminates the role of the pilot. This is part of the DARPA autonomous flight program called ALIAS.
It uses the same idea as some automakers. Helicopters are essentially approaching unmanned vehicles. A person onboard controls the device using a tablet and controllers called interceptors. The first is needed to make changes to the mission, for example, the destination. Interceptors are designed for more specific actions, such as lifting or abrupt departure to the side.
But, unlike regular flight, the use of these controls does not mean that a person manually changes the position of the helicopter. Everything is somewhat more complicated and convenient. After using the interceptor, the flight control computer is instructed to change the direction of movement or the height of the device. Everything is under the control of the algorithm.
“This allows crew members to quickly communicate their intentions to an autonomous system that is becoming something like a co-pilot,” said Igor Cherepinsky, head of Sikorsky’s autonomous programs.
According to him, although the company sent a crew on the flight, the tablet may well work as efficiently as a remote control.
For the military, automating most aspects of flight can mean safer missions. “We want the pilot’s eyes and mind to focus on the battle, instead of monitoring altitude,” said DARPA ALIAS program manager Graham Drozeski.
More autonomous and smart helicopters will also come in handy in the civilian sector. In particular, they can be an important step towards a fully autonomous air taxi. This year, the concept of the latter has already been proposed by Uber. Judging by the company’s plans, the first cities where they appear will be Dallas and Los Angeles. They plan to launch a full-fledged service already in 2023.
At the same time, startups like SkyRyse are betting that smart helicopters will prove that air travel can be cheaper and ultimately more efficient than it is now. Even before they become fully autonomous, such projects can “lower the bar” for human pilots.
According to Cherepinsky, we are moving towards the moment when you can simply press one button on the screen to instruct the device to deliver a person from point A to point B.