Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company, has taken the first step toward transforming the Black Hawk helicopter into an optionally piloted vehicle (OPV).

The company has tested a retrofit technology kit for the first time to operate a Black Hawk helicopter with full-authority, fly-by-wire flight controls.

The flight represents the official beginning of the test programme for the soon-to-be optionally piloted UH-60A helicopter.

Developed by Sikorsky, the technology kit completely removes mechanical flight controls from the aircraft to make it an optionally piloted vehicle.

Sikorsky Innovations vice-president Chris Van Buiten said: “This technology brings a whole new dimension of safety, reliability and capability to existing and future helicopters and to those who depend on them to complete their missions.

“We’re excited to be transforming a once mechanically controlled aircraft into one with fly-by-wire controls. This flight demonstrates the next step in making optionally piloted, and optimally piloted, aircraft, a reality.”

Prior to the fully autonomous flight next year, the company will conduct follow-on flight testing this year aimed at expanding the flight envelope.

Sikorsky is working on the development of an OPV approach through DARPA’s Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) programme.

The approach is designed to ensure that the aircraft can be operated with minimal crew.

“This technology brings a whole new dimension of safety, reliability and capability to existing and future helicopters.”

Sikorsky noted that the approach will give operators the confidence to fly aircraft in ‘optimally piloted modes enabling flight with two, one or zero crew’.

ALIAS aims to use autonomous technologies to reduce pilot workload, augment mission performance, and improve aircraft safety and reliability.

The objective of the programme is to provide greater support to aid operators in decision making for manned operations. Additionally, the programme seeks to enable both unmanned and reduced crew operations.

To enable the first flight of the S-70 OPV Black Hawk, a UH-60A Black Hawk helicopter was retrofitted with the technology kit, which is equipped with Sikorsky’s MATRIX technology.

The company has been testing the MATRIX technology on a modified S-76B called the Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA).

The Black Hawk multirole helicopter is in service with the US Military and the armed forces of 28 other countries. The US Army operates 2,135 H-60 designated aircraft.