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The Matrix, Inside Sikorsky's Autonomy Initiative


At the AUVSI show in Washingon today, Sikorsky is taking the wraps of its Matrix Technology program to develop autonomy for manned, optionally piloted and unmanned rotorcraft. A modified S-76 testbed aleady has begun autonomous flights in West Palm Beach, Florida, and a mockup is being unveiled on the show floor.

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Sikorsky photos by Ted Carlson

The Matrix Technology program is modeled on Sikorsky's X2 Technology demonstration, a $50 million internally funded effort that culminated in 2010 with a coaxial-rotor compound helicopter achieving 250 kt. in level flight, and led to industry-funded development of the S-97 Raider light tactical helicopter.

As with the X2, the Matrix program has key performance parameters, milestones and deliverables—including the first flight in late July of the S-76 demonstrator in autonomous mode. This is to be followed in the fourth quarter by an unmanned cargo mission with a UH-60MU fly-by-wire Black Hawk.

Sikorsky sees in autonomy the ability to fly more missions, less limited by pilot availability, adverse weather or restricted visibility; to fly missions more effectively, by eliminating sources of pilot and operator error; to enable new missions in dangerous environments or with long durations; and to reduce ownership cost by increasing reliability, reducing crewing and improving safety.

Automomy already is coming to vertical lift, but at a lower level, Sikorsky argues and the company is targeting high redundancy, high bandwidth, full authority—and FAA certification. To achieve this, Matrix will build on Sikorsky's experience with FBW and advanced control laws for the RAH-66 Comanche, CH-148 Cyclone, UH-60MU, X2, CH-53K and Raider programs.

The goal with Matrix is to increase onboard system intelligence to a level where the human operating the vehicle is a mission expert who may be miles away, or in the vehicle doing tasks other than flying the aircraft. It is not just about simply moving the operator from the aircraft to a remote ground-control station, the company emphasizes. It's about providing more capability in the vehicle.

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Sikorsky says it is all about operating cost. Typical loss rates for unmanned aircraft today are 1/1,000 flight hours. At $12 million a copy for an unmanned Black Hawk or Radier, that means replacement cost of $12,000 per hour. Even a loss rate of 1/10,000 hr., for a replacement cost of $1,200/hr. is still not acceptable, the company argue. The floor for Matrix is 1/100,000 hr., which is what the Black Hawk achieves in combat, for a $120/hr. replacement cost.

The company's approach is not to develop an autonomous vehicle, but an autonomy architecture that is platform-agnostic and can be used in manned, optionally piloted and unmanned vehicles; inserted into the existing fleet and designed into future products; and incorporated into aircraft built by Sikorsky or its competitors, as a system or an “app.” 

The S-76 Matrix testbed, or Sikorsky Autonomous Research Aircraft (SARA), has been equipped with an FBW flight control system, and will be fitted with a multi-specral sensor suite to provide automomous perception. High-performance computers run an autonomous mission management framework—an open system architecture that includes a virtual model of the world, within which the aircraft excutes its mission.

The S-76 and the UH-60MU, acquired from the U.S. Army, will demonstrate the Matrix program KPPs. These are structured as “specific attributes that are meaningful in the helicopter domain,” says Sikorsky, and include low-level autonomous flight, landing on unprepared surfaces and ships, operation in degraded visual environments, man-rated reliability and—with an eye toward fielding—reduced life-cycle cost.

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