Keeping options open
Automated technologies are fast becoming the designated driver aboard military helicopters. Optionally piloted aircraft are no new thing, but the prospect of selecting manned, unmanned or a combination of the two promises to give crews the ability to determine their needs mission by mission.
The K-Max (Photo: Kaman)
This concoction is expanding the flight envelope for next-generation military rotorcraft. The seismic change in capabilities is also being recognised semantically, Col Ramsey Bentley, capability manager for Future Vertical Lift (FVL) at the US Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Army Aviation Center of Excellence in Fort Rucker, Alabama, told me exclusively:
‘For the majority of the industry and public, we are focused on optionally piloted and when we talk about future concepts, especially FVL, we are really looking at optimally manned,’ he said. ‘So, as we look at UAS today, obviously it’s a remotely controlled vehicle, but as we move forward with FVL, optimally manned becomes even more critical, because that is really the capability to either man the aircraft with a full crew, a partial crew, or to allow the aircraft to fly unmanned, based on the mission and on the enemy situation.’
With this in mind, much of the development of automated systems for military platforms is being led by the US Army, which is currently looking for a new generation of rotorcraft to replace its in-service helicopters through the FVL programme.
Bell Helicopter has designed the V-280 Valor tiltrotor, while Boeing and Sikorsky opted for a coaxial design with the SB>1 Defiant. According to FVL planners, the final design chosen will be optionally manned.
One former US Army helicopter pilot told me about the potential use of optionally piloted helicopters in combat situations. ‘If you needed to get an aircraft or multiple aircraft into theatre, from somewhere like the US, rather than having to designate a crew and dealing with the potential issues of a crew in an aircraft crossing an ocean, [it can be automated].’
In consideration of this, the designs under FVL are being developed to be self-deployable. This ability to fly long distances will free up onboard space on strategic airlifters for personnel or supplies.
‘Taking up space in a C-17 is really valuable. My experience is we always think there’s plenty of space in our strategic lift aircraft, but there’s always way more demand for that aircraft than there is space to take up areas with other aircraft that can fly themselves.
‘Now, if you put the crews on board an aircraft, they take up relatively little space. You fly them to theatre with the aircraft flying autonomously and land, and now the crew can actually link up and fly the aircraft, as they are rested.’
One side of this automation is voice recognition. Experimentation with this technology has been taking place on military platforms for some time, including Rockwell Collins’ efforts with AH-64 Apache pilots in the US.
According to the company, it is pioneering the technology as a conceptual solution. The notable technological revolution has been established through the range of words and phrases that can be recognised by the system.
Rockwell Collins has made significant R&D progress in integrating voice recognition into its helicopter avionics. On a test flight on board a light single-engine civil helicopter in July this year, commands to display the departure chart and increase altitude by 2,000ft, for example, were confirmed and executed successfully using the technology.
Guillaume Zini, senior system engineer for avionics systems at Rockwell Collins, who is also a civil helicopter pilot, explained how voice recognition technology allows aviators greater freedom in the cockpit.
‘As a pilot, this was amazing, as you are used to using rotary buttons and looking for information,’ he told me. ‘You have the human-machine interface… [but this technology] is a different way to zoom and a different way to change the page format.’
Looking to the future, there are always going to be military missions that will require crew members, and likewise, situations where unmanned operations will be easier. Optionally piloted technologies provide militaries with a choice which is determined by the crew’s priorities.
While technology is taking on the role of humans in some instances, the machine is not making them obsolete and is, in fact, catering for the human factor in combat situations to help increase mission readiness.
We delve further into the plethora of onboard technologies that are being optimised to enhance the capabilities of optionally piloted helicopters in the November-December edition of Defence Helicopter.