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Helicopters and UAVs team to achieve special mission objectives


The safety, utility, and value of teaming manned/unmanned rotorcraft is enhanced by effective planning, monitoring, analyzing, understanding, and managing related special missions.

By Don Van Dyke
ATP/Helo/CFII, F28, Bell 222.
Pro Pilot Canadian Technical Editor

The goal of the NASA Urban Air Mobility (UAM) Grand Challenge (2022) is to test the capabilities and readiness of vehicles and systems that could revolutionize mobility in and around densely populated metropolitan areas. The challenge will bring together companies intending to develop and/or operate air vehicles or airspace management services within the larger UAM ecosystem.

Special Mission Aircraft (SMA) are modified or equipped with specialized technology to operate beyond the roles for which they were originally conceived, each with unique capabilities and capacities.

Fixed-wing SMA like the Gulfstream G650ER, Bombardier Challenger 650, Beechcraft King Air 350ER, and Viking Guardian 400 have greater speed, endurance, and range, which are critically important considerations in time-dependent roles.

SMA rotorcraft

Rotary-wing SMA feature open design architecture that is flexible and adaptable to configuration and equipage changes, meeting morphing mission goals and threat targets. Notably, SMA helicopters excel in:

• High-resolution intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) reporting.

• Piloted-asset capabilities augmented with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in formation.

• Runway independence.

• Special tasks, such as insertion/extraction of personnel, resupply, and close air support.

Rotary-wing SMA and UAVs can hover for extended periods and allow maneuverability in low-level, remote, or confined airspace in ways that their fixed-wing counterparts cannot.

Table 1

SMA/UAV teaming concepts

In this context, manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) is the harmonized operation of SMA helicopters and UAVs to enhance mission effectiveness through greater situational awareness and decision-making capabilities.

In these interactions, the unmanned element may be controlled by the manned element, by a separate command center, or autonomously.

Table 1 presents an overview of the current rotary-wing MUM-T technology market. MUM-T is a force multiplier for both military and civil users, requiring autonomy-enabled integration of manned and unmanned aircraft. Example tasks which may be performed by standalone SMA helicopters, UAVs, and/or MUM-T rotorcraft are identified in Table 2.

MUM-T is a key part of the US Army anti access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy and the European Future Combat Air System (FCAS), synergizing the best of teamed-platform coverage.

Civilian applications of MUM-T focus on increasing capacity, improving responsiveness, and mitigating risk to humans and technological assets in challenging environments.

Table 2

Current and near-term projects

The Sikorsky S-76B Hybrid-Electric Demonstrator (HEX) is an autonomous electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) prototype currently in production. With a maximum gross weight of more than 7000 lb, the uncrewed aircraft serves as a flying test bed to evaluate large aircraft design, novel propulsion systems, and control architecture for sustained hover and ranges greater than 500 nm.

The project could scale to a family of eVTOL aircraft for both commercial and military applications to carry passengers and payloads.

Bell Textron performed SMA flights during the all-service Project Convergence 2022 (PC22) to demonstrate ways in which existing piloted utility helicopters as well as new designs like the V-247 Vigilant could fly complex missions in reduced crew, optionally piloted vehicle (OPV), or autonomous modes. This will highlight prospects for flexibility in how and when aircraft and pilots are used, especially in limited visibility or contested environments.

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program aims to retrofit older fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft with advanced hardware and software that will enable them to fly autonomously.

helicoptersALIAS is designed to be a tailorable, drop-in, and removable kit that provides advanced automation to existing aircraft. ALIAS is intended to fly any aircraft autonomously or as an OPV for military applications and high-risk civil missions, such as night aerial firefighting, overwater SAR, etc.

Sikorsky is partnered with DARPA to develop MATRIX, a new modular autonomy-enabling technology (onboard sensors, LIDAR, and cameras integrated with proprietary hardware/software) forming the core of ALIAS. An operator provides system goals and mission constraints, which MATRIX then uses to produce the plan it will follow.

Sikorsky MATRIX technology executes complex missions in low altitude, obstacle-rich environments or in degraded, uncertain conditions. It may one day enable SMA helicopters to resupply forward forces on the future battlefield with no human pilots or crew aboard.

The Leonardo AWHERO Rotary Unmanned Air System (RUAS) provides highly effective, integrated, and low-risk MUM-T solutions. It was demonstrated during the European Defence Agency Exercise Italian Blade in 2015, and integrated into a ship Combat Management System (CMS) during the 2016 Royal Navy Exercise Unmanned Warrior.

The US Marine Corps (USMC) is advancing upcoming hybrid capabilities involving autonomous UAVs launched from future piloted (or manned) VTOL aircraft for MUM-T operations to extend combat reach while distancing human warfighters from contested environments.

MUM-T activities may feature significantly in the development of Urban Air Mobility (UAM). The European Commission supports the development of demonstrators, and many cities and regions have now started innovating with UAM to increase, for example, citizen safety through emergency response.



Clearly, MUM-T promises to extend the functionality of rotary (and fixed-wing) SMA and UAVs. The future of SMA is not confined to utility roles, but significant high-level operational challenges remain. The first is defining how airspace will be managed and regulated, particularly in urban areas. Airspace must minimize visual pollution and give priority to emergency, security, and defense services.

The second is how to encourage confidence that MUM-T operations involving SMA and UAVs will be more beneficial and safer than other conventional modes of transport. And the third challenge is to visualize what future demands will require of sustainable transport and UAM as cities become environmentally and functionally smarter.

While MUM-T portends great commercial, military, government, and societal opportunities, management concepts and supporting functionality is complex and not yet harmonized. Several points merit detailed consideration and are currently the subjects of further research and development.

Communication. MUM-T systems may use different communication protocols, which could lead to miscommunication and errors.

Coordination. MUM-T systems may have different capabilities and limitations, making it difficult to coordinate their actions. For example, certain tasks performed by a manned system may be beyond the current capability of an unmanned system.

Cybersecurity. MUM-T systems are vulnerable to cyber attacks and contested electromagnetic spectrum, which can compromise their performance and put human lives at risk.

Regulations. There are currently no regulations in place for MUM-T operations. This makes it difficult for organizations to implement this technology.

Training. Pilots and operators must be trained on how to function in a MUM-T environment. This requires specialized training which is not currently widely available.

References like STANAG 4586 – Standard Interfaces of UAV Control System (UCS) for NATO UAV Interoperability,  ICAO Cir 328 Unmanned Aircraft Systems, and ICAO Doc 10019 Manual on Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) will aid further understanding the opportunities afforded by and complexities associated with MUM-T operations.

DonDon Van Dyke is professor of advanced aerospace topics at Chicoutimi College of Aviation – CQFA Montréal. He is an 18,000-hour TT pilot  and instructor with extensive airline, business and charter experience on both airplanes and helicopters. A former IATA ops director, he has served on several ICAO panels. He is a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and is a flight operations expert on technical projects under UN administration.