Eurocopter flies EC145 unmanned
On Thursday, Eurocopter showed its ability to integrate unmanned flight capabilities into its helicopter family, demonstrating an „AFlight“ EC145 at the Istres flight test center in France.
The optionally piloted vehicle (OPV) flew routes that included deployment of an external sling load and a representative observation mission, first with a safety pilot on board and then fully autonomously.
The first unmanned test flight of the technology demonstrator had taken place on 12 April. The flights used a four-dimensional flight plan that was uploaded to the helicopter, with its starting and completion points situated on the Istres Air Force Base’s Runway 15/33.
After an automatic takeoff, the EC145 flew the circuit via multiple pre-programmed waypoints, during which the helicopter performed a mid-route hover to deploy a load from the external sling. The EC145 continued on a return route segment representing a typical observation mission, followed by an automatic landing.
For delivery of the external load, the helicopter entered a planned hover – enabling the ground station controller to provide flight control inputs in orienting the EC145 over the drop point. The ground controller then transmitted a command to release load once the helicopter and load were correctly positioned.
The OPV flight capability was developed in great secrecy in an internally-funded Eurocopter program, and was coordinated by a team at the company’s Donauwörth, Germany facility. Initial tests with a monitoring pilot aboard the EC145 were flown from Donauwörth and then at Istres.
The EC145 demonstrator is a Eurocopter testbed helicopter with an enhanced dual-duplex four- axis automatic flight control system (AFCS) and the latest navigation systems. In addition, the helicopter is fitted with the “plug-in” OPV avionics rack in its cabin behind the pilot seats, which contains the data link subsystems.
With the OPV capability validated, Eurocopter says it is now positioned to pursue OPV flight capabilities for its product line of light, medium and heavy-lift helicopters – enabling these rotorcraft to be flown by pilots or in an unmanned mode.