Remote sensing missions
Unmanned and Autonomous Helicopters
One of the important technologies advanced for helicopters is unmanned or autonomous helicopters.
Flying un-manned helicopters, however, requires a skilled pilot, especially for ﬂights at greater distances and close to obstacles. Within visual range (VR), ﬂights are usually conducted as RC (radio-controlled) ﬂights. Manual ﬂights Beyond Visual Range (BVR)are possible in First Person View (FPV) mode with video goggles but situational awareness is challenging and it requires a reliable communication link. From a safety point of view, helicopters are also problematic. Larger helicopters especially can cause signiﬁcant damage when they fail. On the other hand, larger platforms often required for carrying heavy and bulky sensor packages for covering large area.
The unmanned aircraft system (UAS) consists of an autonomous helicopter and a portable ground station. The ground station has a touchscreen with a user conﬁgurable graphical layout and a backup user interface including a ﬂight termination switch. The touchscreen is used for (1) selecting ﬂight plans; (2) starting and aborting mission plan execution; and (3) monitoring and setting of on-board system parameters.
The backup interface permits to send commands to the helicopter in case of a failure of the graphical interface. The ground station stores ﬂight plans, records data received from the helicopter during ﬂight, and archives ﬂight data after landing. Flight plans are uploaded to the ﬂight computer through the wireless data link.
The GNC system consists of a navigation computer, a ﬂight com-puter, and the following sensors: an Attitude and Heading Reference System (AHRS), a GPS receiver, a barometric pressure sensor, and optionally a 2D LIDAR for obstacle detection.
The helicopter can carry a combination of a variety of sensors typically used for remote sensing. Sensors can be mounted in any orientation. Sensors for vegetation monitoring are typically mounted vertically pointing down, sensors for structure inspections are typically mounted horizontally pointing forward. The undercarriage can be further extended to accommodate larger sensors
Helicopters have also become a truly multi-purpose, versatile military asset. They are being designed for multi-role configuration to maximum flexibility and utility for operations in the multiple mission scenarios such as ASW, ASuW, Special Operation, Commando Operation, Amphibious assault, Troop Carrier, ELINT, SAR, External cargo carrying, Casualty evacuation, Communication duties and CSAR. They are being operated from ships and ashore. It is. The mission like Special Operations, Combat SAR and Personal Recovery require performance, precise navigation and survivability.
Current military conflicts have clearly demonstrated the essential role of the helicopter in achieving military objectives. Vertical flight has proven indispensable for transporting critical personnel and supplies safely and efficiently, offers basing flexibility critical to unconventional operations and modern combat, enables operations in complex terrain, and provides vital airborne firepower to protect our troops. Although current systems have proven themselves to be workhorses, helicopter operations are currently performance-limited in mountainous terrain and deserts. In addition, general helicopter performance characteristics have not experienced a significant advance since the introduction of the turboshaft engine in the 1950s.
The first unmanned K-Max served in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom from 2011 to 2013. The K-MAX is a heavy lift helicopter that was originally created as a manned platform, with the unmanned version first developed for use in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom from 2011 to 2013. The 33-month experiment saved numerous lives and proved the concept and value of unmanned aerial logistics. The further development of the military K-MAX UAS will provide unmanned aerial logistics to support US Marine Corps future operating concepts, adding flexibility and faster distribution to Marine ground operations while reducing risk to personnel. The two existing USMC K-MAX unmanned helicopters are being upgraded through a contract with the US Navy and will include enhanced autonomous capabilities, a new ground control station, and sensor-based autonomy.
With support from Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) of the US navy, Near Earth Autonomy and Kaman Aerospace have partnered to develop an intelligent autonomy system for the K-MAX helicopter, a large-scale transport aircraft capable of lifting a payload of 6,000 pounds. The capability developed will be broadly applicable to large aircraft that can take off and land vertically with a large set of commercial and military applications.
Near Earth’s technology allows aircraft to autonomously take-off, fly, and land safely, with or without GPS. Their solutions enable aerial mobility and inspection applications for partners in the commercial and defense sectors. Near Earth bridges the gap between aerospace and robotics with complete systems that improve efficiency, performance, and safety for aircraft ranging from small drones up to full-size helicopters. The work of Near Earth won the 2018 Howard Hughes Award, which recognizes outstanding improvements in fundamental helicopter technology.
Near Earth’s continued work on large-sized transport aircraft builds on past expertise, demonstrating that one architecture can work well across a wide range of different aircraft types and sizes. Using sensors and computing onboard, the aircraft can sense its environment to make real-time flight decisions such as deciding to fly around objects in the flight path and selecting clear places to land or to drop off cargo. Applications for safe autonomous aerial logistics include the efficient movement of military supplies, patients, and war-fighters. Autonomous large-scale heavy transport also enables commercial applications for delivery and urban air mobility.
In 2018, the autonomous aerial cargo/utility system prototype, also known as AACUS, was demonstrated to defense officials expect to see on future battlefields. The Marines have been using unmanned helicopters such as K-Max in Afghanistan for several years, but AACUS is different. It is not a platform, but a tool for upgrading older aircraft like the Huey to give them cutting-edge flight capabilities. It will require less input from personnel on the ground and will not be dependent on GPS for navigation, which reduces its vulnerability to electronic warfare attacks, officials said.
“This is more than just an unmanned helicopter,” ONR Executive Director Walter Jones said during remarks at the demonstration, which was attended by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller and other military brass. “AACUS is an autonomy kit that can be placed on any rotary-wing platform and provide it with an autonomous capability.” Fritz Langford, the project’s chief engineer at Aurora, said the technology includes platform-agnostic computer algorithms, commercial-off-the-shelf sensors and a robust flight control system.
“It has a software package that enables it to make mission decisions on its own,” Jones explained. “It has a suite of sensors that allows it to get information from the environment to inform its decisions. And it is pushing the envelope on autonomous capabilities.” During several flights at the Quantico demonstration, the Huey dodged obstacles such as tree lines, buildings and landing zone hazards. Jones envisioned a scenario where Marines at a forward operating base or other austere environment could call for resupply and have it delivered without putting air crews at risk.
“Imagine for a moment that you are part of a Marine Corps company deployed in a remote location in rough terrain,” he said. “You’re low on ammunition and water and batteries or even blood, and you place a request for resupply. … An AACUS-enabled helicopter can … navigate to the location even in a GPS-compromised area, it can determine the best location for a safe landing without the need for a forward ground control station, and do all of this in low-visibility conditions.”
The technology requires very little training for warfighters, Aurora representatives noted. Marine infantryman Cpl. Christopher Osterhaus said it only took him about 15 minutes to master the tablet that communicates with the system. “As far as the tablet interface, it’s incredibly comparable to [ordering] an Uber or ordering a pizza,” he said. “Once you hit ‘submit’ you get something called mission view, and it [indicates] where the aircraft is, when it’s on its way to you, when it’s about to land and when it’s on the ground.” After the supplies are offloaded and the landing zone has been cleared, “I swipe right and as I do that the bird begins to take off,” he added. “A system with the AACUS technology may be on a logistics mission but at the same time collecting electromagnetic information and feeding that to your targeting system that employs fires,” Schmitt said.
Other major autonomous helicopter projects are also moving forward. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has partnered with Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company, on its Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System program, known as ALIAS. Sikorsky has developed what it calls Matrix technology to enable autonomous flight for rotary-wing aircraft.
The technology has revolutionary potential and offers several key advantages, he said. The primary one is safety. In addition to having the ability to eliminate the need to put pilots in harm’s way for certain missions, the system is expected to reduce accident rates that often result from pilot error or low-visibility conditions. The system’s sensors can detect objects thousands of feet away and map the environment, he explained. “The computer can jam through all the calculations on the current trajectory to see if there’s an emerging issue and can intervene and manage that issue such that the helicopter won’t fly into terrain.”
Matrix includes high performance computing, software and sensors. The super computer that enables it to work is the size of a toaster, he noted. The Matrix algorithms and flight control system can also operate aircraft more efficiently than human pilots, Van Buiten said. Even seasoned air crews introduce extraneous inputs into platforms during operations, he explained. The super computer cuts down on those and can manage the onset of loads on a helicopter by making calculations and moving the controls in fractions of a second.
Airbus Unmanned Helicopter Performs First Autonomous Free Flight
In July 2020 Airbus Helicopters has performed the first autonomous free flight with its prototype VSR700 helicopter unmanned aerial system (UAS). The VSR700 unmanned helicopter is derived from Hélicoptères Guimbal’s Cabri G2, and fits into the 500-1000 kg maximum take-off weight range. It offers an optimized balance of payload capability, endurance and operational cost. It is capable of carrying multiple full-size naval sensors for extended periods, and can operate from existing ships, alongside a manned helicopter, with a low logistical footprint.
Bruno Even, Airbus Helicopters CEO, commented: “The free flight achieved by the VSR700 is a major step leading up to the sea trials that will be performed at the end of 2021 as part of the de-risking studies for the French Navy’s future drone. Thanks to the French PlanAero, the programme will make full use of two demonstrators and an optionally piloted vehicle to develop and mature the technical and operational aspects for successful UAS operations in a naval environment.”
UVH-170 unmanned helicopter is designed for commercial operations and immediate air response, emergency relief under demanding conditions and tight timescales
UAVOS has successfully tested its cargo delivery UVH-170 unmanned helicopter. The trial aimed to validate a highly automated delivery flight from a vendor to a destination and back, across precisely pre-selected pathways. The flight took 1.7 hours and covered a standoff distance of 62 miles (100 km). Critical humanitarian aid, whose weight was 17,6 lbs (8 kg), was delivered with neither the need to land nor the need for a ground control station on the receiving side. UAVOS’s UAS is equipped with line of sight data link (LOS) and satellite communication data link, which supports Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flights.
UVH-170 unmanned helicopter is designed for commercial operations and immediate air response, emergency relief under demanding conditions and tight timescales. The aircraft’s high standoff distance makes it well-suited to humanitarian and disaster relief applications. The capabilities of the UVH-170 unmanned helicopter address many social (medical, pharmaceutical, remote communities, humanitarian aid, etc.) and economic (mining, oil & gas, courier, etc.) use-cases being requested by the customers. The solution is based on the gasoline engine UVH-170 unmanned helicopter. With a maximum take off weight of 99 lb (45 kg), and a payload of up to 22 lb (10 kg), the UVH-170 flies at an altitude of less than 8200 ft (2500 m) at maximum speed of 74 mph (120 kph).
As far as the trials are concerned, Aliaksei Stratsilatau, CEO and Lead Developer of UAVOS said: “As we have seen during the trials, the customers can derive significant benefits from the use of the UVH-170 UAV. As a robust VTOL platform, the UVH-170 does not require any additional take off or recovery equipment, which makes it perfect for delivery to remote areas. Besides, the unmanned helicopter has demonstrated capability to operate in windy conditions with gusts more than 14 mps.”
China’s AV-500 Unmanned Helicopter for High-Altitude Usage
The Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) has successfully test flown a new variant of its AV-500 rotary wing vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in May 2020. A prototype AR500C/ AV500C – with serial number AV500C-PT01 displayed on its tail – completed 20-minute maiden flight in Poyang County in China’s north-eastern Jiangxi Province. The prototype was seen to be equipped with a nose-mounted dummy electro-optical infrared (EO/IR) sensor pod. The baseline AV-500 platform has maximum take-off weight of 500 kg with an overall length of 7.2 m – inclusive of a 5.7 m-long fuselage and tail section – height of 2.4 m and rotor diameter of 6.3 m. It has been flight tested to an altitude of more than 5000 m. It can carry a 175-kilogram payload and fly at a maximum speed of 170 km per hour.
The AR-500C/AV-500C is a further development of AV-500B VTOL UAV, designed specifically for high-altitude operations. There are unconfirmed media reports that the PLA is using these UAVs for surveillance at India-China border in Ladakh area during current stand-off. A key difference from earlier AV-500B and AV-500W twin-rotor configuration models is that this variant has three-bladed main rotors. Another difference from earlier variants is its composite airframe featuring an aerodynamically optimized fuselage shell and enclosed tail boom. AV-500W is the armed reconnaissance version of AV-500 base model, and is marketed internationally as the U8EW. It successfully conducted a missile firing test in 2018. A helicopter drone is considered to be more flexible and offers unique advantages over traditional fixed wing drones.
Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout
The Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout is an unmanned autonomous helicopter developed by Northrop Grumman for use by the United States Armed Forces. The Fire Scout is designed to provide reconnaissance, situational awareness, aerial fire support and precision targeting support for ground, air and sea forces. The initial RQ-8A version was based on the Schweizer 330, while the enhanced MQ-8B was derived from the Schweizer 333. The larger MQ-8C Fire Scout variant is based on the Bell 407.
The MQ-8B features a four-blade main rotor, in contrast to the larger-diameter three-blade rotor of the RQ-8A, to reduce noise and improve lift capacity and performance. The four-blade rotor had already been evaluated on Fire Scout prototypes. They increase gross takeoff weight by 500 pounds (230 kg), to 3,150 pounds (1,430 kg) with payloads of up to 700 pounds (320 kg) for short-range missions. The MQ-8B is 23.95 feet (7.30 m) long, 6.2 feet (1.9 m) wide, and 9.71 feet (2.96 m) tall.
The MQ-8C could carry precision guided weapons,” says Captain Eric Soderberg, Fire Scout programme manager. Specific requirements for the unmanned helicopter have not yet been determine, however, he says. The UAV could have a similar weapons payload to the USN’s Sikorsky MH-60 Seahawk, submarine and ship-hunting manned helicopter which carries torpedoes, Hellfire missiles and Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System
The Navy declared its MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopter mission capable and ready to deploy aboard Littoral Combat Ships.
The Navy is considering putting a more advanced mine locator on the Northrop Grumman-built Fire Scout MQ-8C — an upgrade of the MQ-8B — which has been flying counternarcotics missions since its deployment in December, said Capt. Eric Soderberg, program manager for multi-mission tactical unmanned aerial systems at Naval Air Systems Command.
While the older variant of the Fire Scout utilizes an airborne mine detector known as the coastal battlefield reconnaissance and analysis Block I, the Block II version would be able to detect mines in deeper waters, Soderberg said during a press conference. “There’s a well-defined need for an airborne sensor that can detect mines, not only in the surf zone, which we have sensors for, but also in slightly deeper water,” he said. The Navy plans to issue a request for proposals for the Block II variant in the second quarter of fiscal year 2022.
Leonardo wins contract to develop uncrewed helicopter for UK Navy
Leonardo has received a contract from the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) to design and develop an uncrewed helicopter demonstrator for the Royal Navy. The estimated value of this four-year contract is approximately £60m.
The development of this 3t-demonstrator, also called Proteus, is part of the UK Defence Rotary Strategy, which seeks to upgrade and improve the readiness and capabilities of nation’s helicopter fleet.
This contract also marks the beginning of Phase 3 in the rotary wing uncrewed air system (RWUAS) technology demonstration programme (TDP). In the Phase 1 and 2 of the programme, Leonardo conducted a number of advanced researches for the RWUAS.
Under the latest phase, the company will prepare the prototype for its maiden flight in 2025. This will be followed by demonstrator’s trials that will be conducted by Leonardo to test the aircraft on demanding anti-submarine warfare patrols.
Proteus is a cost-effective platform that will reduce exposure of the Royal Navy’s personnel to potential threats. The new capability aims to deliver an alternative for the Royal Navy’s existing aircraft used for tracking adversary submarines. The aircraft is also expected to provide improved surveillance and intelligence capabilities along with the ability to perform ship-to-ship resupply and casualty evacuation.
DARPA successfully flew a ‘smart’ helicopter without a pilot for the first time in Feb 2022
The UH-60A Black Hawk helicopter completed its flight equipped with experimental autonomous flight software over the U.S. Army facility at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, on Feb. 5, and it performed another similar one on February 7.
The ‘eerie’ craft is equipped with a new AI (Artificial Intelligence) from Sikorsky called the “Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System” (ALIAS), according to a DARPA press release. “ALIAS aims to support execution of an entire mission from takeoff to landing, including autonomously handling contingency events such as aircraft system failures,” DARPA says, also reporting that it will serve to execute specific missions autonomously.
The Sikorsky MATRIX™ autonomy technology helicopter apparently was created to give the Army “operational flexibility,” as Stuart Young—DARPA program manager—said in the release. “This includes the ability to operate aircraft at all times of the day or night, with and without pilots, and in a variety of difficult conditions, such as contested, congested, and degraded visual environments,” he added.
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