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A robo-Black Hawk helicopter flew with no pilots for the first time

Image – DARPA’s Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System program completed the first flight without a pilot onboard an UH-60A Black Hawk helicopter. (Image courtesy of DARPA)

A Black Hawk helicopter has completed its first unmanned flight as part of a US military advanced autonomous flight program, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced today.

Over the weekend a UH-60A Black Hawk outfitted with the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System, or ALIAS, flew over Fort Campbell, Ky., for 30 minutes with no humans on board. The helicopter, running through a preprogrammed mission, flew autonomously through a simulated “obstacle run” designed to look like New York City, DARPA and Sikorsky officials told reporters.

Through the half-hour simulation, the helicopter flew “through downtown Manhattan, with all the buildings,” Igor Cherepinsky, director of Sikorsky Innovations, said. “The aircraft was avoiding potential buildings in real time. So think about the operational need for that.”

The crew performed a 10-minute flight with safety pilots on board prior to the unmanned flight and completed an additional uninhabited flight Monday. Within the next month, ALIAS will also be used in its first flight of a fly-by-wire M-model Black Hawk at Fort Eustis, Va., according to a DARPA press release. 

Stuart Young, program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, said ALIAS has three main goals: increasing safety of air crews in degraded visual environments by giving them automation tools, increasing mission effectiveness of air crews and facilitating cost savings through reduced training requirements and potential maintenance costs. 

For mission effectiveness, DARPA and Sikorsky looked at ways for ALIAS to remove some of the “lower level functions” to “allow pilots to be unburdened and use their cognitive abilities for much higher-level mission-command-type capabilities that humans are much better at,” Young said. 

Cherepinsky told reporters that although ALIAS started as a copiloting program, it has evolved into a digital pilot with the operator on the ground taking the role as a mission commander. But one thing ALIAS isn’t? An artificial intelligence system. 

“In fact, we can argue there is no such thing as artificial intelligence because human creativity has not been replicated yet,” he said, echoing a long-running philosophical argument about the nature of AI. “Human beings are the ones that are deciding what the mission is. Now once you’ve decided what the mission is, ALIAS will certainly plan it for you and show you a way to execute that mission and it will do it for you. That’s the part it’s great at.”

DARPA plans to wrap up the ALIAS program by September, when it will transition the technology to the Army. 

The service used the ALIAS program last year at Project Convergence, where a UH-60 Black Hawk completed an autonomous resupply mission with safety pilots on board. At the time, Young said the program could benefit the service in its Future Vertical Lift modernization efforts and more broadly as it thinks about the future of its Black Hawk helicopter fleet. 

Stuart told reporters today that DARPA and Sikorsky have shown enough automation and resiliency in ALIAS that it can be taken out into an operational environment for the Army. 

“We want to now provide that to the Army so that they can own it and use it on their own to develop autonomy requirements, more specifically, how they would use autonomy on the future battlefield and enable them to have trust and develop that trust in operationally relevant environments,” Young told reporters today. 

Along with the Army, the Air Force is interested in using ALIAS on its F-16 aircraft. And beyond the US, DARPA and Sikorsky have had conversations about the program with countries like Japan, Cherepinsky said.

This article was written by Jaspreet Gill from Breaking Defense and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive Content Marketplace. Please direct all licensing questions to

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