US Army equips Autonomous Black Hawk with drones in aerial assault experiments | New

In search of new ways to support troops, the U.S. military has first flight tested a self-controlled Sikorsky UH-60A Black Hawk helicopter paired with two airborne unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

The November 1 test by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was part of a U.S. military effort to explore how autonomous UH-60s could drop, protect and supply troops, according to DARPA. The agency disclosed the tests on November 9.

DARPA conducted the test as part of the U.S. Army’s Project Convergence Exercises, conducted at Yuma Proving Grounds in the southern Arizona desert. FlightGlobal attended a previous iteration of the test on October 26.

The US military has flown autonomous UH-60s in the past, but recent testing is a further step for the military in assessing how autonomy fits into its future flight capabilities. The demonstration is the first time the DARPA Black Hawk has conducted an autonomous refueling mission. It is also the first time that the aircraft has landed autonomously on an unimproved landing zone.

The military is considering ways to integrate the DARPA Air Crew Work Automation System (ALIAS) kit into its fleet of more than 2,200 Black Hawks. ALIAS is designed to allow even the UH-60A – the oldest model of the type, introduced in 1979 – to fly autonomously.

For recent flight tests, DARPA imagined a scenario where a squad of American soldiers was stuck behind enemy lines; supply flight routes were threatened by enemy anti-aircraft weapons, making the mission too dangerous for US Army pilots.

Enter the standalone UH-60A Black Hawk, paired with two Area-I Altius-600s – small UAVs known as “air launch effects” that can provide surveillance of targets on the ground.

While the Black Hawk was underway, the Altius-600s deployed from a launch kit bolted to the helicopter cabin deck, a first for the program.


1. Soldier on the ground called for a resupply mission using a tablet running Android Team Awareness Kit (ATAK)

2. A DARPA UH-60A Black Hawk optional pilot vehicle (OPV), with safety pilots on board, started its engines autonomously, took off and flew towards the soldier

3. En route, the Black Hawk autonomously launched two Altius-600s based on the Ground Soldier’s commands.

4. The Altius-600 flew over the battlefield, providing target identification and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. They replaced the previously launched Altius-600s which were reaching the end of their endurance.

5. The Black Hawk landed autonomously at a location identified by the soldier on the ground

6. Soldiers unloaded cargo from the Black Hawk

7. TThe ground controller gave the Black Hawk an order to return to base

8. The Black Hawk took off autonomously, proceeded to base, landed at a designated location, and shut down its engines

“It takes less than an hour to install the [launch] in a Black Hawk, ”says Stuart Young, program director for DARPA’s ALIAS program. “The kit for the Black Hawk was built on a single sheet of steel which can be easily installed or removed.”

The use of UH-60s for autonomous troop resupply appears to be a major potential application of ALIAS. The Black Hawks can carry an external sling load of up to 8,000 lbs (3,630 kg) and have a range of 320 nm (593 km). That’s far more range than any UAV carrying cargo under development, said Brigadier-General Walter Rugen, director of the Future Vertical Lift cross-functional team in US Army Futures Command.

“Someone’s going to have to come up with a pretty convincing idea [vertical-lift UAV]… Who can carry that amount and do it at this beach, ”he says.

Rather, the US Army’s UH-60s are bought and paid for. “We have all this iron here now,” says Rugen.

Altius-600 flywheel c Zone-I

Air-launched effects like the Altius-600 are versatile drones deployed from helicopters and larger drones. They can be used for route reconnaissance, communications retransmission, electronic warfare support, or dive bombing. Altius-600s can automatically identify targets; for example, spotting anti-aircraft weapons during route reconnaissance.

Cruising at just 60 kt (111 km / h), the Altius-600 are too slow to keep up with the Black Hawks, which are cruising at 149 kt. But drones can be deployed before the Black Hawks for route reconnaissance, Young explains. Threats identified by drones can be “relayed from the command center to the Black Hawk who would then autonomously choose an alternative route if the threat straddles its path,” he adds.

The US military has also asked for proposals for an “Air-Launched Effects Large” which “is intended to launch and keep pace with helicopters,” he said.


The US military hopes to begin replacing its UH-60 fleet with its next-generation utility rotorcraft, the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA), in 2030. Candidates for the program – the Sikorsky-Boeing Defiant X and the Bell V-280 Valor – promise to meet maximum service cruising speed requirement of 280 kt (519 km / h).

But speed comes with the cost. The service is targeting an average unit manufacturing cost of $ 43 million for the FLRAA, and the budget-constrained U.S. military has not committed to replacing the Black Hawks one-for-one. It intends initially to deploy the FLRAA with “forced or early entry” units, such as the 101st Airborne Division, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and the 82nd Airborne Division, it said. service.

For these reasons, the UH-60s will apparently remain in the fleet for decades, being used as secondary or support aircraft.

With the possibility of modernizing older UH-60s, the US military plans to use some as “attriable” planes, Young explains. The attritable concept, pioneered by the US Air Force, aims to make autonomous planes that can be lost in combat and replaced cheaply.

“Yes, it’s money,” Young says. “But at least there is no life or limb lost [if the helicopter is shot down]. “


Maybe one day far into the future all planes in the US military will be unmanned.

But not anytime soon; the service is not keen to take humans out of the equation.

“Would we put the team at the back [of a helicopter], but you don’t have a driver in advance? I don’t think so, ”says Rugen. Human pilots are “low latency” decision makers who are resistant to cyber attacks, he adds.

Instead, autonomy will likely help pilots and prevent accidents. In situations of degraded visual environment – for example, flying in darkness, fog, rain or snow – ALIAS can help detect obstacles. It comes with digital terrain elevation data and other types of maps preloaded, and uses LiDAR sensors and visual light cameras to scan the surroundings, says Young of DARPA.

ALIAS can scan landing zones and store this information, improving safety when operating in poor visibility conditions, Young adds. “There are a lot of security features that we can provide. There are a lot of low level controls that we can take away from the pilot to just focus on hovering, which is a non-trivial task. “

UH-60 Black Hawk raises dust c US Army

Advanced sensors and digital altitude maps could also help automate nap flight, a tactic to avoid radar detection by flying low and hiding in the radar shadows of valleys and hills. In theory, ALIAS could allow a helicopter to fly autonomously on nap routes better than humans.

Range could also allow the Black Hawks to follow more optimized flight paths and operate with fewer control inputs, potentially minimizing fuel consumption and improving mission endurance, Young explains. The extent of these gains remains unknown without further testing, he adds.

“The military needs to start figuring out how it would like to use these capabilities,” he said. “What are the tasks that they really want to automate and expand as we go along? “

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