The flight trials, which are being conducted at CVLAD’s Aerospace Research Centre in Ottowa, began in March 2022 using a Bell 412 helicopter which has been integrated software and hardware architecture developed for the project.
The initial flight trials focus on testing the aircraft’s ‘core’ autonomy, ensuring that it can navigate on its own – taking off from a launch pad, following a planned circuit while avoiding several obstacles, and then returning to land safely. A pilot was aboard during the initial flights as a safety precaution, but the NRC has confirmed that the system ‘performed flawlessly’.
Collaborating with the NRC on the project is Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), the research and development branch of the government’s Department of National Defence (DND), which has been responsible for ensuring that the technology meets the ‘shared requirements’ of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).
In addition, the project is also being supported by Transport Canada and National Defence’s Directorate of Technical Airworthiness and Engineering Support, which are responsible for establishing airworthiness rules and certification for the technology in civil and military aviation respectively.
The project is not intended to replace pilots altogether, but rather to reduce the workload of pilots and improve the navigation capabilities of helicopters, particularly in ‘degraded environments’ where visibility is low, such as the Arctic and in deserts.
It is expected that the technology will eventually be applied on a larger scale throughout the aviation industry, enabling monotonous and potentially dangerous piloting tasks traditionally performed by humans to be automated.
The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) ALIAS completed the first successful fully unmanned flights using a UH-60A Black Hawk as part of its own autonomous helicopter project in February, in collaboration with Sikorsky.