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During a two-hour demonstration on Dec. 18, two years to the day that it first left the ground, Bell’s V-280 Valor performed everything required for an end-to-end autonomous flight, though pilots were on board to keep an eye on things.
Two separate sorties lasting a total of 120 minutes saw the aircraft fly faster than 180 knots without human hands on the controls.
“Bell demonstrated the elements required of end-to-end autonomous/unmanned flight over two sorties, while two safety pilots on board monitored each step and evaluated the aircraft’s performance,” the company said in a statement. “The various stages were done piece by piece, not as a continuous activity.”
The advanced tiltrotor, which Bell developed as a part of the U.S. Army’s Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstration (JMR-TD) program, made an automatic vertical take-off and entered hover, then made a departure climb, and transitioned to cruise mode. It demonstrated automated waypoint navigation, loitered over an objective, conversion to helicopter mode by rotating its nacelles, approached a designated hover point and then made an automated vertical landing.
All of the maneuvers were flown in the V-280 simulator to test both the aircraft’s software and flight controls.
“Bell first vetted all software in our state-of-the-art systems integration lab before flying upgraded flight control software allowing for different autopilot functionality on Dec. 6,” the company said. “While the V-280 effort focused on the specific air vehicle control laws, other aspects of autonomous flight are being matured company-wide as program agnostic autonomy solutions.”
Secretary of the U.S. Army Ryan McCarthy recently visited Bell’s flight center in Amarillo, Texas. Next month he and Army entourage will visit the Valor’s main competitor, Sikorsky, in West Palm Beach, Florida, where the SB>1 Defiant recently flew at speeds greater than 100 knots.
Both aircraft were financed partially by the U.S. government through the JMR-TD program and partially through each company’s internal research and development funding, to the tune of more than half a billion dollars each.
Bell got out to an early lead and has been flying aggressively, though the Sikorsky team has drawn heavily on lessons learned from the smaller S-97 Raider.
“They’re addressing the issues of specific characteristics that we’re looking for — whether it’s power or speed,” McCarthy said in Amarillo.
In a recently published story, the Army said the eventual replacement for the UH-60 Black Hawk will need to maintain maximum continuous power, medical evacuation capabilities, and perform a 500-foot-per-minute vertical rate of climb.
“The Army aviation’s vision necessitates next-generation vertical lift capabilities that can deter, fight, and win as part of the joint force, in increasingly dangerous and complex environments,” Army officials said in a news release.