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Sikorsky S-76: Autonomous helicopter completes 30-mile flight, controlled by a pilot on a tablet

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James Flachs
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Sikorsky, which is now owned by major aerospace defence firm Lockheed Martin, achieved this feat by utilising technology developed for Darpa's Aircrew Labour In-Cockpit Automation System Alias programme.

Each aircraft has so many complex controls that a large, specially-trained crew is required, and emergencies can still be overwhelming.

To this end, Darpa launched the Alias programme in 2014 to make pilots' lives simpler by allowing military aircraft to take over and execute specific tasks or even a complete mission by itself.

Sikorsky started its autonomous aircraft research programme Matrix in 2013 and it has been developing software to enable the Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft Sara – essentially a modified S-76 commercial helicopter – to deploy increasingly greater levels of autonomy and essentially become the helicopter equivalent of a drone.

How the autonomous helicopter works

Thanks to an $8m £5.6m award from the Alias programme, Sara was able to take off from Stratford, Connecticut and fly 30 miles 48km to Robertson Airport in Plainville, Connecticut – with the entire flight executed and monitored by one single pilot in the aircraft's cockpit using a tablet.

The pilot first takes off and repositions the way the helicopter is facing using the Sara app to touch and drag.

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James Flachs
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