DARPA ready to transition ALIAS autonomous flight technology to the services

An uninhabited Sikorsky UH-60A Blackhawk at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona on Oct 14, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company)

Coming off a series of successful demonstrations, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is looking to transition autonomous flight capabilities from its ALIAS program to the military services.

The technology, developed by DARPA’s Aircrew Labor In-cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) initiative in partnership with Sikorsky, was put through its paces last month at Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., as part of the Army’s annual Project Convergence exercise.

During the event, Sikorsky’s Matrix autonomy system and related capabilities were integrated into a Black Hawk helicopter that flew uncrewed missions focused on long-endurance medical resupply, cargo delivery and casualty evacuation.

The Black Hawk platform has been in service for decades and was designed to be piloted by humans. But with the ALIAS technology, it can operate as an unmanned aerial vehicle so service members don’t have to fly into harm’s way.

“You can go down to zero pilots as we demonstrated at Yuma a couple of weeks ago, where we have basically turned the aircraft into a UAV, which gives a lot of operational flexibility for the maneuver commander and [gives] the commander the ability to evaluate the risk calculus in a different way,” DARPA program manager Stuart Young told reporters on Wednesday.

For the medical resupply scenario, the uncrewed Black Hawk aircraft flew 83 miles with a 500-pound load of real and simulated blood.

“We flew approximately 100 knots around 200 feet off the deck. Low level [flight] allowed us to do terrain masking and demonstrate that capability, which would be useful in a contested resupply type [of] mission,” Young said.

For the combined cargo delivery and casualty evacuation scenario, the Black Hawk took off with a 2,600-pound external load attached to a 40-foot sling, and then flew at 100 knots for 30 minutes toward a designated landing zone.

“While in flight, the helicopter was redirected, simulating a scenario in which a threat needed to be neutralized near the primary landing site. Sikorsky demonstrated how a ground operator with a secure radio and tablet can take control of the uncrewed helicopter, command it to release its sling load, and then land to evacuate a casualty from a nearby location. Once the manikin on a litter was secured inside the cabin, the ground operator launched the aircraft,” according to a Sikorsky press release.

Unlike some unmanned platforms which are remotely piloted, a ”man in the loop” isn’t required to operate an aircraft that is equipped with the Matrix technology, according to Sikorsky.

“It’s a true autonomous system. That’s to say, once you’ve explained to the aircraft what its mission is, you don’t really need a data link if you don’t want to monitor it,” Igor Cherepinsky, director of Sikorsky Innovations, told reporters.

The technology uses sensors to detect landing zones on its own. It can also deal with contingencies or emergencies that might arise and adapt its flight operations accordingly, he noted.

“We’ve demonstrated a very robust obstacle avoidance using sensors. And we’ve demonstrated being able to avoid stationary obstacles and moving obstacles, and even fast-moving obstacles,” he said.

The ALIAS capability can use Lidar and cameras to sense what’s around it.

“The first source of navigation is GPS because it’s the easiest one to use. We are not, however, fully reliant on GPS. If GPS isn’t available, we have other means, including perception and dead reckoning and other things,” Cherepinsky said.

Having demonstrated at Yuma what ALIAS is capable of, DARPA and Sikorsky are now looking for ways to transition the technology to the military and the private sector.

“We will really feel like … we’ve created an inflection point and it’s a large value proposition. And so we’re really trying to set the conditions at this phase of the program for optimal opportunities for transition to the service and to the commercial sector. We have quite a few that Sikorsky is working. We’re trying to create some additional ones based on needs that we have heard,” Young said.

The Yuma exercise was “probably our last experiment under the ALIAS program label,” he said. “But we do have some other opportunities that we’re continuing to pursue with the services on how they can ingest it most effectively.”

Cherepinsky said the new autonomy technology has been demonstrated on a variety of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.

Army senior leaders selected the missions that the uncrewed Black Hawks performed during Project Convergence based on what they’re interested in, Young noted.

“The Army has some ideas on how they want to use this capability, and so those folks have the lead. And so we’ll figure out the most graceful way to transition … to the Army and potentially to other services, including the Marines and Air Force who have also expressed interest in this,” he said.

Young expressed optimism that the ALIAS technology will successfully transition to the military and won’t die on the vine like some Defense Department R&D efforts that show promise.

“I’m very confident that the services will adopt it. The question has to do with in what form or fashion? And so as we deal with the acquisition process, there’s certainly things that we have to overcome. But the overwhelming response from the services is that this has opened their eyes to what is truly possible now, and it’s causing them to rethink the capabilities that they can imagine … with this technology. So I’m very confident that will happen,” he said.

Meanwhile, DARPA has other program ideas and concepts that can leverage and build off the capabilities developed through ALIAS, he noted.