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Autonomous flight test lasted for two hours

The U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center recently conducted a demonstration test of a specially equipped JUH-60A Black Hawk helicopter that needs no pilots to land, fly, and avoid threats. The helicopter has been dubbed the Rotorcraft Aircrew Systems Concept Airborne Laboratory or RASCAL.

The test of the RASCAL was conducted at the Diablo Mountain Range in San Jose, California. During the testing, pilots were onboard the helicopter but all flight maneuvers were conducted autonomously. During the two-hour flight, the RASCAL was able to navigate an obstacle field and use terrain-sensing capabilities, while performing statistical processing, risk assessment, threat avoidance, and autonomously operating flight controls in real-time.

"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 AMRDEC's Aeroflightdynamics Directorate.

During the test, the RASCAL flew at between 200 and 400 feet above ground level. During the test, the helicopter was also able to identify a safe landing spot within a forest clearing and was able to hover 60 feet over the identified landing spot with within 1-foot accuracy.

"A risk-minimizing algorithm was used to compute and command a safe trajectory continuously throughout 23 miles of rugged terrain in a single flight, at an average speed of 40 knots," said Matthew Whalley, the Autonomous Rotorcraft Project lead. "No prior knowledge of the terrain was used."


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I look forward...
By stevessvt on 12/6/2012 10:17:27 AM , Rating: 5
To the upcoming headline: Iran captures Black Hawk Helicopter, US Army denies report.

RE: I look forward...
By Schadenfroh on 12/6/2012 11:32:18 AM , Rating: 5
"Iranian President sends Pink Hawk Helicopter to Obama in response"

RE: I look forward...
By Metaluna on 12/6/2012 11:41:56 AM , Rating: 3
I don't think we need to worry about that. I can't think of too many missions where it would make sense to retrofit a crewed helicopter for unmanned operation. This sounds more like an R&D proof-of-concept, where the technology would be used as some kind of auxiliary backup to a live pilot (maybe to eliminate the need for a copilot, for example), or else transferred to something designed to be a drone from the start.

The main advantages of unmanned aircraft are the huge cost, size, and weight savings you get from not having to carry a crew. Putting such a system in an aircraft that has already made all those tradeoffs to support a crew kind of defeats the purpose, IMHO.

RE: I look forward...
By danjw1 on 12/6/2012 12:02:13 PM , Rating: 2
The Black Hawk is primarily a troop transport, so I don't see a reason for it to be used as an autonomous aircraft in combat. So you are right, I think. This is just a helicopter they had that they are using to test the technology, not something that is likely to see combat operations.

RE: I look forward...
By Spoogie on 12/6/2012 12:09:36 PM , Rating: 1
Right, because pilots are easily replaceable and their lives dispensable. *:-|

RE: I look forward...
By nafhan on 12/6/2012 12:13:41 PM , Rating: 2
That and cost.

Training a pilot costs millions of dollars. Buying a helicopter costs millions as well. That said, it's not completely unreasonable to believe that at some point retrofitting a helicopter for automated flight may cost less than training a pilot or replacing an otherwise perfectly good vehicle.

RE: I look forward...
By Bad-Karma on 12/6/2012 3:03:21 PM , Rating: 2
The Black Hawk is primarily a troop transport

Oh? In both OEF & OIF there are more logistical supply sorties being made by the blackhawks than troop sorties. There is no where near enough Chinooks & other heavy lift helos to do all the Army's logistical work that is needed on a daily basis.

A lot of the more remote outposts don't have a runway, which would dictate USAF supply drops which the Army and Air Force don't like to do unless it is absolutely critical. And the poor to non-existent roads limits truck convoys which are also quite vulnerable.

RE: I look forward...
By danjw1 on 12/6/2012 12:12:08 PM , Rating: 2
The problem is that no one thought about how to secure the control systems on some of these UAVs. What the Iranians did was spoof GPS signals to get it to think it was near home base, while jamming its control signals. There is a secure version of GPS that the military has access to, that offers finer accuracy. I am not sure why they didn't require that for guidance.

Anyway, it should have some fault tolerance built in, to recognize that it is being spoofed. If I jumps from a known position to someplace else too quickly, that should set off something telling it that it isn't working right. And either self destruct or try to make a reasonable guess on how to get back to friendly territory.

RE: I look forward...
By kivnul on 12/6/2012 1:07:09 PM , Rating: 3
There is a secure version of GPS that the military has access to, that offers finer accuracy. I am not sure why they didn't require that for guidance.

AFAIK, the finer accuracy signals are currently open for public use. This is what survey grade GPS units use. If the government was to lock down these signals again, it would cause havoc with surveyors and pilots.

RE: I look forward...
By ctodd on 12/6/2012 1:42:33 PM , Rating: 2
RE: I look forward...
By TSS on 12/6/2012 1:56:00 PM , Rating: 2
I'm sure these things are secured to hell and back. The thing is though, with digital technology, nothing is really secure. It's like the perfect lock: It doesn't exist, because the reasson why the lock exists - to open something - means something can always get in.

Same with digital technology. As long as it's capable of recieving information, it's capable of recieving false information, no matter how much security you build in. I'm sure the way the iranians captured these drones will not be possible on all future models produced after the event. But that means they'll just find a new way, humans are like that.

Gotta remember though, you're dealing with iranians here. Those are Persians, not arabs. There's quite a difference, mostly in the fact that they're less of a pushover then people think.

RE: I look forward...
By Metaluna on 12/6/2012 4:46:22 PM , Rating: 2
It all comes down to cost-benefit analysis. Yes, you can put a top-secret unspoofable encrypted GPS unit on a UAV, but they cost a fortune, and, in and of themselves, probably pose a greater security risk if one of them were to fall into the wrong hands than the loss of the UAV itself, especially if something fails and the encryption keys don't get wiped.

It's kind of a different mindset with UAV's, at least the cheaper ones. You can kind of treat them like cannon fodder, as long as the bean counters feel it's worth the cost and risk of loss for a given mission. They're just machines (at least, until they get sick of it and decide to revolt :)).

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