NRC Builds Autonomous Helicopter

The National Research Council is testing a self-flying helicopter but says it will be a while before pilots are no longer needed. The big Bell 412 has been outfitted with an autonomous flight control system with basic sense and avoid technology. These flight trials are starting with testing the helicopter’s autonomy “core” or backbone, to ensure that it can navigate on its own, taking off from a launch pad, following a planned circuit and then coming back to land safely, avoiding several obstacles in the landing zone,” NRC said in a news release. “An important milestone was reached recently when the team conducted a completely autonomous flight, a first in Canada for a transport category helicopter. A pilot was aboard as a safety precaution, but the system performed flawlessly.”

The immediate goal is not to create a pilotless helicopter but to gradually incorporate elements of the technology into the aircraft to ease pilot workload and enhance safety. Project manager Duff Gowanlock said the process mirrors the integration of autonomous vehicle technologies, like emergency braking systems and lane assist sensors, into modern cars to help drivers recognize potential hazards while driving. “It allows government and industry to increase the capabilities of new and existing aircraft, while reducing the number of pilots onboard,” Gowanlock said.