Artificial Intelligence (AI)-enabled algorithms are starting to allow unmanned fighter jets to dogfight against piloted aircraft. This is done through generating the ability of an unmanned system to maneuver, make decisions, and perform analyses faster than a human can. But what about AI for helicopters?
For many years now, the Army’s ongoing development of its Future Vertical Lift aircraft program has prioritized the importance of engineering optionally-manned helicopters, intended to add a new mission scope to the future of rotorcraft.
With this in mind, one of the competing systems now being assessed by the Army demonstrated the ability for autonomous flight last year. It is Bell’s V-280 Valor tiltrotor aircraft now being tested by Army pilots as part of the service’s Future Long Range Assault Aircraft program.
“We were sitting on the ground runway and I flipped a switch, starting the whole autonomous sequence. It started with a hover and then did a climb out and a transition to cruise mode,” Don Grove, Chief Test Pilot, V-280, Bell, said in an interview.
During the unmanned demo, the aircraft flew to a specified location autonomously before converting back into helicopter mode and autonomously hovering back onto the airfield.
What kinds of additional mission possibilities might this open up? There are several, the most evident of which is simply increasing soldier safety, as an unmanned helicopter could perform resupply, ammo-delivery or forward reconnaissance without putting soldiers at risk. Such a scenario would enable attacking forces to operate helicopters in highly dangerous areas under enemy fire, and given the state of modern networking, it is entirely feasible that humans operating from a safe standoff distance could perform command and control functions such as operating sensors or even firing weapons when necessary.
The intent of the technical effort is to build upon and advance existing “fly-by-wire” technology, now built into modern Black Hawks, that draws upon automation and certain early forms of autonomy to navigate an aircraft in the event that a pilot is injured or disabled. Part of the technical maturation of these kinds of systems include even more advanced algorithms which can compile and analyze sensor data, perform advanced targeting missions and coordinate reconnaissance data with other air and ground assets. This technical trajectory also extends into a program long-described by the Army as Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CTIF), an advanced computer-enabled system engineered to take over flight of a helicopter to avoid obstacles should a collision be imminent. Using iterations of autonomy, CTIF can help helicopters fly around or above mountainous terrain otherwise likely to cause crashes.
“The significance of this unmanned flight was showing the art of the possible. It opens up the opportunity for a self-deployment mission,” Keith Flail, Vice President, Bell.
Kris Osborn is defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.