In the blue skies above the Diablo Range, just east of San Jose, a Black Hawk helicopter flew a two-hour test mission controlled entirely by a computer -- without a pilot’s hand.
There were pilots aboard the aircraft, but all maneuvers during the flight were conducted autonomously, Army officials said. Through its sensors and onboard computers, the Black Hawk was able to sense surrounding terrain, assess risk and avoid possible threats.
The Black Hawk, made by Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., maintained a low-flying altitude of 200 and 400 feet throughout the flight. During the final phase, the chopper identified a safe landing spot within a forest clearing and commanded the aircraft to approach and hover at 60 feet.
The final hover was accurate within a foot, the Army said.
The Army said the demonstration is critical to the next generation of technological advances in military rotorcraft: obstacle field navigation and safe landing area determination.
"This was the first time terrain-aware autonomy has been achieved on a Black Hawk," said Lt.
Col. Carl Ott, chief of the Flight Projects Office at the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command's Aviation and Missile Center.
The Army’s Nov. 5 flight marks the latest attempt by the military to roboticize its aircraft. The Pentagon has an ever-expanding fleet of drones, which include high-flying spy jets, cargo-carrying helicopters and missile-firing hunter aircraft.