The CH-53K heavy-lift helicopters that the Israeli Air Force has purchased from Lockheed-Martin might have automated flight capabilities, allowing for unmanned flights deep behind enemy lines.
Though these CH-53K helicopters, which are expected to arrive by 2026, do not yet have the ability to do so with full fly-by-wire capabilities, it has the growth potential to have the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) installed should the air force decide to install such a system.
ALIAS is a “flexible, extensible automation architecture for existing manned aircraft that enables safe, reduced-crew operations, which facilitates the addition of high levels of automation into existing aircraft,” read a statement provided by DARPA.
It also provides a platform to integrate additional automation capabilities tailored for specific missions. The system also aims to support the execution of an entire mission from takeoff to landing, including autonomously handling contingency events such as aircraft system failures.
On Wednesday, DARPA and Sikorsky Lockheed Martin announced that a UH-60A Black Hawk helicopter flew completely unmanned for the first time for half an hour, bringing the possibility even closer that such aircraft can fly into dangerous airspace without risking human lives.
The flight took place over the US Army installation at Fort Campbell in Kentucky on February 5, with another taking place on February 7 as part of DARPA’s ALIAS program.
“With ALIAS, the Army will have much more operational flexibility,” according to Stuart Young, program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. “This includes the ability to operate aircraft at all times of the day or night, with and without pilots, and in a variety of difficult conditions, such as contested, congested and degraded visual environments.”
The Black Hawk was retrofitted with Sikorsky MATRIX autonomy technologies that “form the core” of ALIAS, and are designed to help pilots and crew when flying through degraded environments like limited visibility or without reliable communications.
During the flight, the helicopter performed pre-flight checks, took off, and flew through a simulated Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) system depicting the congested and complex New York City skyline to demonstrate maneuvering and control in a dense environment.
The aircraft flew autonomously before landing by itself. It has flown autonomously before, but with a pilot ready to take the controls.
“With reduced workloads pilots can focus on mission management instead of the mechanics,” said Young. “This unique combination of autonomy software and hardware will make flying both smarter and safer.”
ALIAS IS part of efforts to make both the current and future military helicopter fleets optionally manned. Technology like ALIAS could later be incorporated into the army’s Future Vertical Lift programs as it continues through the development process.
The UH-60A Black Hawk, a medium-utility two-engine helicopter manufactured by Sikorsky, has been in service in the IAF since 1994. It was first used in combat during Operation Grapes of Wrath against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in 1996.
Designed in the 1970s as a utility tactical transport aircraft for the US Air Force, the helicopter can carry over a ton of equipment or a dozen troops with their equipment.
In December, the Defense Ministry signed an agreement with the US government to acquire 12 Lockheed Martin CH-53K helicopters to replace the aging CH-53 Yasur heavy-lift helicopters.
The CH-53K King Stallion, the successor to the CH-53, is powered by three engines giving it a cruising speed of 315 km/h and a range of 530 miles (852 km).
Fitted with digital fly-by-wire avionics with fully integrated flight and navigation displays, it has a mechanical diagnostic system that notifies maintenance crews when a part needs to be replaced. It can carry three times the amount of cargo carried by older helicopters.
Operated by a crew of five, including two pilots and a combat crew of three gunners, it is fitted with self-defense weapons and ballistic protection. It also has crash-worthy seats and retracting landing gear, significantly increasing aircraft and crew survivability.
With a full fly-by-wire system, the CH-53K can be flown with a pilot in the cockpit or unmanned where the helicopter will do exactly as programmed without any pilot input.
That ability will allow the IAF to fly the helicopter deep behind enemy lines and carry out missions like supplying troops and logistics without placing a pilot at risk.