A Black Hawk equipped with a full authority fly-by-wire system by Collins Aerospace and Sikorsky made its first flight at Sikorsky’s West Palm Beach, Fla., facility on May 29. Photo courtesy Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company.

PARIS AIR SHOWCollins Aerospace [UTX] and Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky [LMT] are highlighting an advanced fly-by-wire retrofit kit to allow autonomous flight in medium and heavy helicopters and fixed wing aircraft.

“Well over 1,000″ legacy military and commercial medium and heavy helicopters worldwide lack fly-by-wire, said Steven Avritch, the chief flight control engineer for Collins Aerospace.

The fly-by-wire system passed its first real-world test on May 29, as the system permitted a degree of autonomous flight of a Sikorsky UH-60A Black Hawk as part of the DARPA Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program.  Sikorsky has used the term “optimally piloted vehicle,” as the fly-by-wire system is to act as a robotic co-pilot to a human operator or enable remote operation from the ground.

Further testing this summer is to expand the flight envelope and lead to fully autonomous, unmanned flight in 2020.

Darryl Woods, Collins Aerospace’s general manager of control systems, said that he sees a “big demand” for the new fly-by-wire system in the near term.

“Limited authority” Stability Augmentation Systems (SAS) provide 10 to 15 percent authority for helicopters, while fly-by-wire permits 100 percent authority, thus allowing autonomy.

Collins Aerospace said that its new fly-by-wire system can thus serve as a significant augmentation for helicopters that already have systems to ameliorate rotorcraft operations in degraded visual environments, systems such as Boeing’s [BA] digital automatic flight control system, which has aided U.S. Army pilots of Boeing CH-47F Block I aircraft in making safe landings during brownout conditions in Afghanistan.

A range of helicopters, such as Sikorsky S-92 and Leonardo EH101s, could benefit from the fly-by-wire retrofit kit in a range of applications, including oil rig work, Avritch said.

“When you’re doing North Sea work, in near zero visibility, fly-by-wire and autonomy start showing their value,” he said.

Collins Aerospace said that its new fly-by-wire system is “triple redundant and replaces a mechanical system of rods and pulleys with electro-mechanical actuators controlled by an enhanced flight control computer.”

The system also is a “‘jam free’ system with purely magnetic coupling, which eliminates the need for gearing, ball screws or clutches,” according to Collins Aerospace. “The revolutionary design of the fly-by-wire solution…allows it to be installed without modifying the hydraulic system or hydraulic actuator, removing the need for re-qualification of the hydraulic system and thus providing a more affordable retrofit option.”

By 2022, Collins Aerospace also hopes to introduce to military and commercial markets a vehicle management computer (VMC) for clean sheet design helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. The VMC is to be a supercomputer with 20 times the power of the company’s existing flight control computer. Collins Aerospace is looking at the U.S. Army’s Future Vertical Lift program, including the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) and the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA), as a major opportunity.

“We’re designing the VMC to meet all the requirements for Future Vertical Lift, regardless of whether it’s FARA or FLRAA,” Woods said.

In the last two months, Collins Aerospace has also begun marketing the VMC as a solution for European sixth generation fighter aircraft. They include the Franco-German-Spanish Future Combat Air System, a notional sixth generation fighter to replace the Dassault Aviation Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon, and the Royal Air Force’s Tempest effort with BAE Systems.