Developing solutions to overcome the limitations of helicopters

- Ottawa, Ontario

Helicopters really are tremendously useful. Unlike trucks and similar vehicles, they don't need a road. Unlike airplanes, they don't need a runway. They take off and land vertically, making them ideal for reaching remote and unserviced areas. But the very feature that makes this possible—their rotor, the horizontal blades that give them their power and their unmistakeable silhouette—can also create the conditions that impede their operation.

Helicopter flying in front of a building

Powering the ability to operate autonomously

When helicopters land on a soft surface, such as sand or snow, the rotors stir it up so much, creating what's known as a dust ball, that the pilot can't see well enough to land safely. The NRC's Aerospace Research Centre has developed a solution that uses autonomous flight systems, making it possible for the helicopter to land without the involvement of the pilot. This year in Yuma, Arizona, the NRC demonstrated the success of its system at the US Army's annual event, the Experimental Demonstration Gateway Event 2023 (or EDGE23) to look at potential new technologies for helicopters.

The NRC's aerospace project is called the Canadian Vertical Lift Autonomy Demonstration (CVLAD). This system, in simpler terms, according to project leader and research flight test engineer Derek (Duff) Gowanlock, "gives decision-making authority to the helicopter to decide where to fly." The benefit of this innovative system, he says, lies in increasing the operational capabilities of helicopters.

Landing in sand or snow, explains Gowanlock, can create a cloud "so intense that you can't see the ground anymore." The NRC's solution uses lidar technology and AI to see, map and evaluate the landing spot so the pilot doesn't actually need to see the ground to land. And with this system in place, the helicopter needs fewer people to operate it.

A clear demonstration of success

At EDGE23, Gowanlock and his team were able to demonstrate the value of CVLAD by successfully carrying out a resupply mission, from takeoff to landing. Of more than 100 participants, the NRC was the only one to demonstrate the successful use of autonomous technology.

Gowanlock, obviously pleased, rhymes off the successes that emerged from EDGE:

  • It marked the first time the system operated in a degraded visual environment, in this case desert dust balls. "Not many helicopters in the world can do what our helicopter can do autonomously."
  • It was the first example of a no-hover landing, where a helicopter just descends and lands. This kind of landing blows up the least amount of dust. A complicated manoeuvre for any helicopter, it is especially so for one being guided by an autonomous system.
  • It marked the first time a helicopter with an automation system has completed a team event with a drone—working with and controlling the drone for a period of time, pointing to a future where aircraft, both with and without human pilots, can work together in a coordinated fashion.

Applications beyond the military

The obvious application of CVLAD is for military use, and the Royal Canadian Air Force is the client for this particular project, with Defence Research and Development Canada funding. During the war in Afghanistan, for instance, where helicopters played a major role in the Canadian deployment, crashes were not uncommon because of having to land in desert sand. The CVLAD project and technology can help prevent such crashes.

But there are other applications as well, such as delivering groceries to remote Northern communities that lack road access or picking up injured or critically ill people to deliver them to a healthcare facility. This makes this NRC-driven solution a game changer for all Canadians, not just for the military.

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