In a scene from the movie “The Matrix,” Carrie Anne Moss’ character calls to get a flight program for a certain kind of helicopter, and after a few blinks of the eyes, the program is installed in her brain and she’s ready to roll. The Pentagon’s lead research arm isn’t quite at that point yet, but it is sort of getting close.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), along with Sikorsky Aircraft and the Army, last month demonstrated “supervised autonomy” in which a crew with minimal training took a commercial S-76B helicopter for a ride mostly operating it with a tablet computer. The demonstration was the latest feat from DARPA’s Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS), which could soon be setting up shop in the Army’s Black Hawks.

In the demonstration at Fort Eustis, Va., the helicopter manned by Army pilots lifted off and flew to a nearby field, where it landed after adjusting its flight to avoid a vehicle on the ground. It then lifted off again and hovered in a stationary position for several minutes.

“The Army refers to this as Mission Adaptive Autonomy,” said Lt. Col. Carl Ott, chief of Flight Test for the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center’s Aviation Development Directorate. “It’s there when the pilot needs the aircraft to fly itself and keep it free of obstacles, so the pilot can focus on more of the mission commander type role. But the pilot is able to interact with the system to re-suggest, re-route or re-plan on the fly,” he noted.

Next, DARPA is planning to test the system on the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, which, like the S-76B, is made by Sikorsky (which, incidentally, calls its contribution to the ALIAS program Matrix Technology). The Black Hawk, in different variants, has been the Army’s front-line helicopter since 1979. The Army currently has 2,100 of them in its inventory, and another 1,200 are operated by 30 partner and allied nations, according to the Army. With further upgrades planned, the Army expects the Black Hawk to be around until at least 2054. So it seems a logical platform for next-generation flight technology.

“We’ve chosen the Black Hawk as the platform we want to demonstrate full integration of ALIAS-type capabilities–all the circuit breakers and switches and instruments in the aircraft, so that the capability ALIAS provides to a crew member is really like a copilot,” Graham Drozeski, DARPA’s program manager for ALIAS, said in the agency’s announcement. “It can fly routes, plan routes, execute emergency procedures, and do all that perfectly.”

ALIAS, which currently is in Phase III, is developing drop-in kits to add autonomous functions to manned aircraft in order to reduce a pilot’s workload, allowing them to concentrate on mission-related matters when flight conditions are difficult–such as attempting to hold a position amid roaring winds. “Hovering in adverse winds is a task that consumes a human pilot’s attention, but automated flight control achieves ‘rock steady’ precision,” Drozeski said. In addition to being able to assist pilots by the controls for some function, ALIAS could also allow the military to reduce the size of flight crews.

Earlier ALIAS tests, during Phase II, included using the system aboard fixed-wing aircraft such as the Cessna 208 Caravan and Diamond DA-42, as well as the Sikorsky S-76. The goal in Phase III is to develop ALIAS’ ability to respond to contingencies, adapt to a variety of missions and aircraft type, and, especially, respond to intuitive human-machine actions such as the swipes and taps people use with a tablet. DARPA said the system will allow the same tablet to be used for multiple types of fixed-wing planes and helicopters.

The Fort Eustis demonstration illustrated how far the ALIAS program has come. As Wired pointed out, flying a helicopter isn’t easy, requiring extensive training. But the crew involved, one of whom had never been in a helicopter, completed the flight after as little as 45 minutes’ training, although the pilot in charge of the flight did get to spend a few days with the tablet beforehand.

While the Department of Defense has plenty of plans for unmanned aircraft, it still expects manned flights to continue, even with autonomous copilots.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.