DARPA is planning its first fully autonomous UH-60 Black Hawk flight with no safety pilots onboard this January, with the Army assessing how it may leverage the technology for its enduring helicopter fleet.

A lead program official for DARPA’s ALIAS program, which has been running for about six years, told reporters he anticipates the technology transitioning to the Army in near future as the service anticipates potential use cases from aircrew augmentation to potential completely autonomous operations.

A Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter (Photo: Lockheed Martin)
A Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

“It makes common fiscal sense that we’re going to have these very expensive Future Vertical Lift (FVL) assets and there’s going to be missions where you’ll say I don’t need to send in a [very expensive] aircraft when I can send in an automated legacy or enduring aircraft. How the Army decides to use those is something the Army needs to figure out, but at least we have the technology to be able to do it,” Stuart Young, DARPA’s program manager for ALIAS, told reporters during the Army’s recent Project Convergence experiment at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.

At Project Convergence, the Army remotely conducted the first autonomous launch of an Air Launched Effects-Small prototype from a Black Hawk using the ALIAS technology (Defense Daily, Nov. 9). 

During the six-week experiment, the Army used the ALIAS-enabled Black Hawk as an unmanned logistics asset to conduct a resupply mission.

“The scenario is, essentially, an air assault unit is deployed forward. They’re pinned down and they need resupply. It’s too risky for us to send in a manned helicopter. And so what we’re going to do is fly the autonomous UH-60 OPV, or optionally-piloted vehicle. The only thing the pilots will be doing in that mission is [serving as] safety pilots. They won’t be on the sticks at all. From the ground, they’ll plan a route. They’ll launch the aircraft to go into the landing zone to do a resupply,” Young said. 

Project Convergence was an opportunity to understand how such an autonomy capability could not only offer new capabilities to Army’s enduring fleet of helicopters, according to Young, but also to inform how it would complement the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) and Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) currently in development. 

“This is a hugely powerful capability. We can add autonomy to our enduring fleet. Think about all those Black Hawks that we have in our fleet right now, we have the opportunity to increase their mission endurance and the flexibility of mission sets you can do with them. We can use them in concert with Future Vertical Lift assets, like FARA and FLRAA. And, of course, FARA and FLRAA have objective requirements to do autonomy as well, so we can learn a lot about autonomy and what specific requirements the Army would want and have the opportunity to do that testing and experimentation sooner rather than later,” Young said.

Maj. Gen. Walter Rugen, director of the FVL Cross-Functional Team, reiterated Young’s view on the future for autonomy-enabled Black Hawks and cited the potential for the platform to act as a souped-up version of a UAS capable of extensive distances and cargo-carrying ability for logistics operations.

“On the logistics front, when you look at what ALIAS is doing with the absolutely cargo carrying capacity of the Black Hawk and the range, I haven’t seen a UAS meet that yet. And the fact that ALIAS is doing that and showing that we can carry 6,000 to 8,000 pounds of cargo at our UH-60 ranges, somebody’s going to have to come up with a pretty compelling UAS that’s vertical lift, that can carry that amount and do it at that range,” Rugen said.