Like a big drone with two rotors, a Sikorsky S-76 commercial helicopter successfully traveled and landed without a pilot actually touching the flight controls inside the aircraft. The demonstration, performed in January 2016, was part of a program developed by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) called Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS).
The video published back in May 2016 shows a Sikorsky S-76 tandem rotor chopper equipped with an autonomous flight system to serve as a Sikorsky Autonomous Research Aircraft (SARA) as part of DARPA's ALIAS program. This $8-million research was awarded to Lockheed Martin company Sikorsky to test autonomous aircraft flight.
"ALIAS envisions a tailorable, drop-in, removable kit that would promote the addition of high levels of automation into existing aircraft, enabling operation with reduced onboard crew," according to Graham Drozeski from DARPA. "Easy-to-use touch and voice interfaces would facilitate supervisor-ALIAS interaction."
For phase 1 of the project, a chopper fitted with an ALIAS kit successfully completed a 48.2-kilometer (30-mile) autonomous flight and landing using just a tablet computer. For phase 2, DARPA demonstrated how an ALIAS kit can work in existing aircraft fleets, installing it in a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter and a Cessna 208 caravan airplane.
A third phase is planned which would demonstrate and enhance ALIAS' capabilities to respond to contingencies while lessening pilot workload. "ALIAS would also provide a platform for integrating additional automation or autonomy capabilities tailored for specific missions," Drozeski added. Though designed to enhance automated military aircraft, it's not difficult to imagine the technology behind ALIAS being used in commercial autonomous flights.