Autonomous aircraft, though all but unheard of just a few short decades ago, have changed the face of warfare as we know it. From reconnaissance and intelligence gathering missions to complex strikes against ground targets and even a recent successful air-to-air engagement in a training environment, it’s become clear: the skies over battlespaces of the future will be chock full of self-piloting aircraft.
But despite the level of autonomy many of these advanced drone platforms exhibit, warfare is still a long way off from eliminating the need for operators in the field. War will always require “boots on the ground,” and until scientists find a way to mount those boots on a capable and reliable infantry drone platform, that’s going to mean putting Americans in harm’s way. That isn’t to say that autonomous systems can’t play a vital role in supporting the those troops once they enter into the battlespace.
DARPA’s new invisible auto-pilot system, dubbed ALIAS for Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System, takes the job of directly controlling the aircraft out of the pilot’s hands, freeing pilots up for other important war zone tasks like coordinating with nearby friendly forces, assessing threats, or any other responsibility that could be better accomplished with the pilot’s full attention. The ALIAS system handles the flying, but the pilot can quickly re-route or re-plan the helicopter’s flight path by way of a tablet-based interface.
While the most complex or dangerous helicopter flying tasks may still fall on the shoulders of well trained military aviators, the ALIAS system could manage monotonous tasks like resupply flights in low threat environments; allowing the pilots on board the opportunity to rest or even sleep while ferrying passengers or goods to and from locations in uncontested airspace.
The first ALIAS system has already been successfully installed on a Sikorski S-76B helicopter that DARPA has named SARA (Sikorski Autonomy Research Aircraft). Last month, SARA successfully demonstrated its ability to execute a number of missions, including some that might be considered too dangerous to leave to an automated system in real combat environments. That actually belies another important role ALIAS could play in future wars: a pilot of last resort.
If a helicopter pilot gets injured or killed, ALIAS-equipped helicopters could allow the system to assume control, stabilizing the aircraft and flying it to safety. To that end, SARA has already demonstrated the ability to conduct low-altitude flying over complex terrain, take off and landings inside confined spaces, and even obstacle avoidance using advanced LIDAR. The next step, according to DARPA, is to mount ALIAS in the helicopter it will most likely become a fixture in: a UH-60 Blackhawk. Though they’ve already announced plans to develop similar systems for crewed and uncrewed helicopters and even fixed-wing aircraft in the near future.
Watch the ALIAS system in action in the video below: