By Olivia Koski
In mid-June, a single-turbine helicopter took off from a test field in Mesa, Arizona, avoided obstacles during flight, scoped out a landing site and landed safely. It’s the kind of flight choppers have made tens of thousands of times before. Except this time, the helicopter did it entirely on its own — with no humans involved. It was the first fully autonomous flight of a full-sized chopper, ever.
The trial, overseen by Army-funded research team from Carnegie Mellon and the Piasecki Aircraft Corporation, has sent robo-choppers into the sky before (see the video, after the jump). And this Boeing-modified MD530F helicopter, known as the Unmanned Little Bird has been making flights since 2004. But this was its first test without a pre-programmed flight path.
Unmanned smart choppers could help the military better handle dangerous territory and low-visibility conditions to evacuate wounded soldiers or bring supplies to the front lines. In areas with bad or nonexistent roads (like Afghanistan), helicopters are sometimes the only mode of transport. Finding a place to safely land in a dust storm, on rugged terrain, or with bullets flying at you presents a major challenge for pilots. Artificially intelligent helicopters could help pilots stake out good landing spots, or perhaps even allow them to stay safely behind at base.