June 7 (UPI) -- Sikorsky for the first time operated a Black Hawk helicopter with full-authority, fly-by-wire flight controls in the Lockheed Martin company's quest to transform the aircraft into an optionally piloted vehicle.
The flight on May 29 at Sikorsky's test facility in West Palm Beach, Fla., marked the official start of the flight test program, the company announced Thursday. Future tests will include several different flight configurations throughout the summer, leading to fully autonomous flight -- meaning no pilot -- next year.
Sikorsky has developed a technology kit to turn the rotorcraft into drones by removing mechanical flight controls from it.
"This technology brings a whole new dimension of safety, reliability and capability to existing and future helicopters and to those who depend on them to complete their missions," Chris Van Buiten, vice president of Sikorsky Innovations, said in a statement. "We're excited to be transforming a once mechanically controlled aircraft into one with fly-by-wire controls. This flight demonstrates the next step in making optionally piloted -- and optimally piloted -- aircraft, a reality."
Sikorsky said it wants to give operators "the confidence to fly aircraft safely, reliably and affordably in optimally piloted modes enabling flight with two, one or zero crew."
The company has developed the technology through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System program.
Sikorsky earlier demonstrated the Matrix technology on a modified S-76B, called the Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft. The aircraft has more than 300 hours of autonomous flight since 2013, the company said.
In March, Sikorsky announced that its S-92 helicopter fleet update will include the introduction of phase one Matrix technology. Missions include offshore oil transportation, search and rescue, and head of state uses, including the helicopter flown for the President of the United States, Marine 1.
The first UH-60A Black Hawk was accepted by the Army in 1978, and entered service in 1979 with aviation components of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions. Future variations include the UH-60L and UH-60M, the latter of which Lockheed Martin calls the "best-in-class multi-mission performer."
In all more than 4,000 UH-60's have been produced for U.S. Dept. of Defense armed services branches, including 2,135 for the U.S. Army, as well as its allies with a S-70 designation, according to Lockheed Martin.
All three models can carry 11 troops. The UH-60A and UH-60L include a crew of three, with a cargo hook capacity of 8,000 pounds. The UH-60M has a crew of four with 9,000 pounds hauling. They can fly 4,000 feet in altitude.