Twentieth century science fiction writers often featured flying cars and self-driving automobiles in their stories. While we haven't quite reached that vision yet, researchers at the National Research Council of Canada's (NRC) Aerospace Research Centre are well on their way to it. In March 2022, they started the first phase of flight trials for a self-flying helicopter under their project entitled 'Canadian Vertical Lift Autonomy Demonstration (CVLAD)'.
Much like with the integration of self-driving cars, the aerospace industry has to take the addition of autonomous flight systems one step – or rather, one feature– at a time. This is why aspects like adaptive cruise control or lane-changing warning systems, both components that stem from autonomous driving, have slowly been incorporated into many new cars in recent years. This slow progression helps show consumers that autonomy isn't as dangerous or risky as it may seem!
This is the same approach that the NRC's autonomous lift demonstration project wishes to take. Our innovative researchers are working with experienced NRC pilots to carefully incorporate small elements of autonomous technology into our Bell 412 helicopter, demonstrating as transparently as possible how the technology is safely being applied and tested every step of the way. We've started by creating a computer software and hardware architecture that has been integrated into the Bell 412 for ongoing flight trials.
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. 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.
Derek "Duff" Gowanlock, the NRC's project manager, calls this the "crawl-walk-run" approach to extending the range of opportunity for autonomous flight systems. It allows government and industry to increase the capabilities of new and existing aircraft, while reducing the number of pilots onboard. This isn't to say, however, that this technology will eliminate the need for pilots altogether, but rather it will reduce workload and improve the tech's capacity for working with the pilots more effectively and efficiently. The technology development sees supervision of autonomy being needed for many years as trust of the technology and autonomous capability increases.
The project team aims to apply this type of autonomous technology on a larger scale throughout the industry, enabling it to do the monotonous and potentially dangerous tasks traditionally performed by humans. The autonomous aspect allows the system to make decisions that humans normally make, which requires both public trust and regulations that support its integration into commercial, military and everyday applications.
One of the main collaborators is Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), the science and technology organization of the Department of National Defence (DND), which has been responsible for guiding the technology development process and ensuring shared requirements are met, like those of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). This project not only advances Canadian innovation, it bolsters helicopter navigation capabilities for the RCAF in "degraded environments", typical in the Arctic and in deserts where reduced visibility from white-outs or brown-outs can occur. For that, DND will sometimes refer to this project as the Advanced Tactical Helicopter Operations in Degraded Environments (ATHOPeD) project.
This unique project is also linked to Transport Canada and National Defence's Directorate of Technical Airworthiness and Engineering Support, which is responsible for establishing certification and airworthiness rules for civil and military aviation, respectively. Together, we are building the foundation for new regulations for supervised autonomous flight to help ensure the safety of all Canadians.
It's time to crawl-walk-run straight into the year 2062!