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DARPA’s ALIAS program improving Pilot’s decision making in degraded environments and enhancing Autonomy of existing Aircraft

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded Sikorsky  a contract to carry out a third phase of its program to develop an Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS), the Lockheed Martin subsidiary announced in January. Under Phase III of the program, Sikorsky will focus on the fabrication and installation of prototype kits on multiple aircraft variants, and conduct flight demonstrations for each.

The drop-in, kit-based system provides advanced automation to an existing aircraft; the aim of the ALIAS program is to reduce pilot workload while enhancing mission performance and safety. In addition to assisting with decision making on a manned aircraft, DARPA and industry officials see the technology being applied to control unmanned aircraft systems.

Through ALIAS, pilots can fly the aircraft using a tablet computer that recognizes familiar prompts such as swiping and tapping. Sikorsky’s demonstration system, which connects to existing mechanical, electrical and diagnostic systems, fits under the cabin floor and within the airframe of both airplanes and helicopters.

“Pilots can choose to engage autonomy to help operate, dynamically plan, adjust and/or execute a complete spectrum of responsibilities, allowing the operators to better focus on the designated mission at hand,” said Mark Miller, Sikorsky vice president of engineering and technology. “Our autonomy capabilities will help pilots in high-workload and degraded-visual environments, ultimately increasing safety and efficiency.”

Through the DARPA ALIAS program, Sikorsky is developing systems intelligence that will give operators the confidence to fly aircraft safely, reliably and affordably in optimally piloted modes enabling flight with two, one or zero crew. The program will improve operator decision aiding for manned operations while also enabling unmanned operations.

The objective of DARPA’s ALIAS program is to develop and insert new levels of automation into existing military and commercial aircraft to enable those aircraft to operate with reduced onboard crew. ALIAS seeks to leverage advances in autonomy that reduce pilot workload, augment mission performance, and improve aircraft safety and reliability.

“In Phase 2, we exceeded our original program objectives with two performers, Sikorsky and Aurora Flight Sciences, each of which conducted flight tests on two different aircraft,” said Scott Wierzbanowski, DARPA program manager. “In Phase 3, we plan to further enhance ALIAS’ ability to respond to contingencies, decrease pilot workload, and adapt to different missions and aircraft types.

We’re particularly interested in exploring intuitive human-machine interface approaches—including using handheld devices—that would allow users to interact with and control the ALIAS system more easily. Ultimately, we want to design for and demonstrate the improved ALIAS system across as many as seven previously untested fixed- and rotary-wing platforms.”

Jessica Duda, Humans and Autonomy Group Lead at Aurora Flight Sciences, was quoted in Digital Trends. “ALIAS as a whole is much more capable than an autopilot, as it includes procedures tracking and monitoring, contingency identification and response, and intelligent interaction with the onboard pilot.”

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Army, and the U.S. Navy have all expressed interest in ALIAS’ potential capabilities and are providing support to the program.

ALIAS’ Phase 2 accomplishments included:

With work on ALIAS Phase 1 complete, Sikorsky has begun Phase 2 of the program. DARPA awarded Sikorsky a $9.8 million modification for the competition’s second phase, which focuses on continued maturation of the initial ALIAS system with additional flight tests, enhancements to the human interface and transition to additional aircraft to demonstrate ALIAS portability.

  • Successful flight demonstrations of ALIAS technology installed in two different Cessna 208 Caravan fixed-wing aircraft, a Diamond DA-42 fixed-wing aircraft, and a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter
  • Successful ground demonstrations of ALIAS responding to various simulated flight contingency events, such as system failures, that might cause pilots to deviate from pre-set plans or standard courses of action
  • Demonstration of quickly tailoring ALIAS to new platforms, and showing that installation and removal of the kit did not impact airworthiness

ALIAS makes use of in-cockpit machine vision, robotic components to actuate the flight controls, an advanced tablet-based user interface, speech recognition and synthesis, and a knowledge acquisition process. The latter facilitates transition of the automation system to another aircraft within a 30-day period.

The company points out in its list of system features: “Ability to learn aircraft procedures and visually gather information without requiring access to aircraft avionics.”


Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin Company, successfully demonstrated a 30-mile autonomous flight using a Sikorsky S-76 commercial helicopter to complete Phase 1 of an $8 million award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)’s Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program.

This flight highlighted the ability for an operator to plan and execute every phase of an autonomous mission with a tablet device. During the demonstration, a ground station crew located at the flight initiation field monitored the progress of the ALIAS-enabled Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA), an S-76 commercial helicopter.

“With the advances we’ve made, the capability for safe, unobtrusive optionally piloted flight is here,” said Mark Miller, Vice President of Engineering & Technology at Sikorsky. “ALIAS is expanding the role of optionally piloted helicopters for early entry into established aircraft programs. It has the capability of not only reducing aircrew size, but also changing the type and length of training required for safe operation.”

“The current environment limits the creation of new, optionally piloted platforms. What Sikorsky and DARPA are demonstrating is the successful and affordable integration of advanced technology onto existing legacy aircraft to not only set the stage for autonomous operations down the road, but also to immediately improve aircraft performance, reduce maintenance costs, and increase crew and passenger safety,” said Chris Van Buiten, vice president of Sikorsky Innovations, the technology research group for the engineering and technology organization. “We are delighted to be working with DARPA on this transformational program,” said Van Buiten.

ALIAS Seeks to Provide Portable, Flexible Advanced Autopilot Ccapabilities

Military aircraft today have evolved over a period of decades to have ever more automated capabilities, improving mission success and safety. At the same time, these aircraft still present challenging and complex interfaces to operators, and despite demanding training regimens, operators can experience extreme workload during emergencies and other unexpected situations. Avionics and software upgrades can help, but can cost tens of millions of dollars per aircraft, which limits the rate of developing, testing and fielding new automation capabilities for those aircraft.

To help overcome these challenges, DARPA has created the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program. ALIAS envisions a tailorable, drop-in, removable kit that would enable the addition of high levels of automation into existing aircraft to enable operation with reduced onboard crew. The program intends to leverage the considerable advances that have been made in aircraft automation systems over the past 50 years, as well as the advances made in remotely piloted aircraft automation, to help reduce pilot workload, augment mission performance and improve aircraft safety.

“Our goal is to design and develop a full-time automated assistant that could be rapidly adapted to help operate diverse aircraft through an easy-to-use operator interface,” said Daniel Patt, Darpa program manager, adding this would transform the pilot from system operator to mission director. The portable kit would control sufficient aircraft functionality to permit the automation to manage the complete flight, including handling contingency events such as systems failures, allowing the operator to act as a mission commander, Darpa says in its proposers ’ day notification.

As an automation system, ALIAS would execute a planned mission from takeoff to landing, even in the face of contingency events such as aircraft system failures. ALIAS system attributes, such as persistent state monitoring and rapid procedure recall, would provide a potential means to further enhance flight safety. Easy-to-use touch and voice interfaces could enable supervisor-ALIAS interaction. ALIAS would also serve as a platform for enabling additional automation or autonomy capabilities tailored for specific missions.

ALIAS targets advancement in three key technical thrust areas:

(1) Minimally invasive interfaces from ALIAS to existing aircraft: It is anticipated that the ALIAS system would need to operate aircraft functions to provide automated operation. Systems generally confined to the cockpit would support the vision of portability.

(2) Knowledge acquisition on aircraft operations: To support adaptation of the ALIAS toolkit across different aircraft in a short amount of time, it is anticipated the ALIAS system would benefit from the leverage of existing host aircraft procedural information, existing flight mechanics information or models, or other methods of rapidly developing requisite aircraft information.

(3) Human-machine interfaces: A vision for ALIAS is that the human operator provides high-level input consistent with replanning and mission-level supervision and is not engaged in lower-level flight maintenance tasks that demand constant vigilance.


Sikorsky S-97 Raider

Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., a United Technologies Corp. subsidiary, announced the successful flights of its S-97 RAIDER™ helicopter, in May and September 2015 demonstrating a game-changing combination of maneuverability, hover ability, range, speed, endurance and survivability.

The S-97 features a pair of counter-rotating rigid rotors for lift and a tail-mounted propeller for additional thrust, allowing it to fly at speeds of up to 250 miles per hour (220 knots) and hover at extreme altitudes. The combination also makes the Raider much more nimble than other helicopters; the Raider is designed to withstand sustained forces of up to three times the earth’s gravity in maneuvering.

The pilot flies the helicopter exclusively with the cyclic stick, a control on the stick allows the pilot to control the pitch of the rear propeller to control speed in level flight—or to fly the aircraft backward with negative pitch. And the combination of rigid rotors and rear thrust makes the Raider much more nimble than other helicopters; the Raider is designed to withstand sustained forces of up to three times the earth’s gravity in maneuvering.

Its rigid rotor system provided a “phenomenal amount of control,” Sikorsky pilot Bill fell said. “You very quickly make inputs in roll and in pitch and there’s no lag like a typical articulated rotor system. The aircraft responds immediately to your control input.”

S-97 RAIDER, a compound helicopter features next-generation technologies in a multi-mission configuration (armed aerial scout or light assault), capable of carrying six troops and external weapons.

In addition to flying at nearly twice the speed of a conventional helicopter, the S-97 Raider prototype aircraft will incorporate other key performance parameters critical to combat operations. These include increased maneuverability, greater endurance, reduced acoustic noise signature, and the ability to operate at high altitudes.

It is intended as a contender for the United States Army’s requirement for an Armed Aerial Scout to replace the Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior. “You need to have a human in the loop assessing the situation” on scout missions, Raider’s chief test pilot Bill Fell said.

The Raider is based on the X-2 technology that Sikorsky developed in the late 2000s, but doubles the size at 11,000 pounds, with room for six troops for combat assault missions or extra equipment or ammunition.

The aircraft is powered by one General Electric YT706 engine, the same engine used on the UH-60M Black Hawk. The aircraft will ultimately be powered the Future Affordable Turbine Engine (FATE).

It is believed, that Sikorsky has embedded some of the features developed for the secret, radar evading U.S. Army Stealth Black Hawk used by the Navy SEALs at Abbottabad in May 2011.

The S-97 has a flight crew of two in a side-by-side cockpit. However, the production S-97 is projected to be capable of flying with either one or two pilots, or autonomously



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