In a First, Full-Sized Robo-Copter Flies With No Human Help

In mid-June, a single-turbine helicopter took off from a test field in Mesa, Arizona, avoided obstacles in-flight, scoped out a landing site and landed safely. It's like 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 Coporation, 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 non existent 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.

While on-the-fly autonomous navigation is a first for a full-sized helicopter, the technology developed by Sanjiv Singh and his team from Carnegie Mellon is not so different from what they used to outfit a Chevy Tahoe to win Darpa's 2007 Urban Challenge. "It's not as if we started from scratch," says Singh. "A lot of the technology was there already."

To make the helicopter self-flying, the team installed a scanning LIDAR that uses lasers to collect range information from its surroundings. The laser data is processed by a computer that relays commands to the helicopter controllers.

The data also creates a 3-D map that enables the helicopter to "see" the ground or obstacles in the air - and then adjust its trajectory accordingly. The algorithms helped the helicopter miss a tall tower during one of the tests. In another trial, the team deceptively instructed the helicopter to land on top of a car, but the chopper was not fooled, resolving instead to land on flat ground nearby.

With its ability to avoid obstacles in flight, the system has more in common with autonomous SUVs that maneuver through rough terrain than high-flying remote-controlled flying drones like the Global Hawk. Like many military umanned aerial vehicles, the Global Hawk is fixed-wing, and avoids obstacles by simply flying where there aren't any – at 65,000 feet.

"There aren't a lot of autonomous helicopters," Singh observes. The army recently scrapped its order of Northrop Grumman's remote-controlled MQ-8 Fire Scout in favor of the fixed-wing RQ-7 Shadow.

With the cancellation of Future Combat Systems – the military's plan to roboticize the military by 2020 – it's tough to say what the future of autonomous helos looks like. But a defining moment in robo-choppers appears to have been reached last month in Mesa.

Photo: Sanjiv Singh

In a First, Full-Sized Robo-Copter Flies With No Human HelpWired.com has been expanding the hive mind with technology, science and geek culture news since 1995.