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Lockheed Martin subsidiary Sikorsky has successfully demonstrated autonomous flight capabilities of its Sikorsky S-76 commercial helicopter at its Stratfod, Connecticut testing facility. With this, the company has completed the $8m Phase 1 of the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) project for the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Sikorsky’s ALIAS implementation controlled the S-76 on a flight from the Stratford facility to Robertson Airport in Plainville, Connecticut – a 48km journey. This trial showcased the capability for an operator to plan and execute an autonomous flight mission to the last detail using the ALIAS system.

The aim of the ALIAS project is to develop and increase adoption of automation in existing aircraft, which would result in fewer onboard crew being necessary to operate a craft, increase mission performance, and decrease pilot workloads.

“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.”

Now in Phase 2, DARPA awarded Sikorsky $9.8m earmarked for maturation of the ALIAS system, including exhaustive testing, enhancements to the human interface, and adaptation and transition to additional aircraft.

“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 Sikorsky Innovations VP Chris Van Buiten.