Erickson (Booth 7545) and Sikorsky Aerospace (Booth 7532) signed a development agreement to incorporate the latter’s Matrix Technology into Erickson’s fleet of S64 Air Cranes, providing supplemental autonomous flight capabilities to enhance pilot’s firefighting capabilities, the companies announced at Heli-Expo on Wednesday
“The Northern and Southern hemisphere fire seasons are starting to merge, and we're also seeing the fires intensifying,” said Hayden Olson, v-p and general manager of Erickson Aerosystems. “We need to be able to fight fires at night and in reduced visibility conditions. This technology is going to give our pilots that ability, so they can focus on the mission.”
As for choosing Sikorsky to help craft a solution, Olson said, “The Air Crane was a Sikorsky type certificate at one point in time. We have a shared DNA, and Sikorsky’s number-one value is safety.”
Sharing the podium with Olson in what was billed as a “fireside chat” to announce the agreement, Sikorsky Innovations v-p Chris Van Buiten said, “We've been developing autonomy technology for 10 years, and not for small drones, but for big airplanes and helicopters: 12,000 pounds and up.” He noted Sikorsky is now flying an optionally-piloted UH-60 Blackhawk outfitted with a similar system at its West Palm Beach, Florida facility.
A demo flight of a Matrix-equipped S64 is expected sometime next year, the companies said. Matrix also captures a vast amount of data, and Erickson believes that can provide keys for optimizing firefighting operations in the future.
Though initially intended to augment the aircraft’s standard two-pilot crew, when the system is fully matured, Sikorsky plans for Matrix-equipped aircraft to be operated either by two pilots, one pilot, or autonomously, simply by toggling a switch between the three options. That selection would be based on the task and the danger involved.
“If the horrible day ever happens and we're tasked to drop concrete on the Fukushima nuclear reactor,” Van Buiten said, by way of example, “we'd be delighted to flip the switch on 'zero' [crew members] and have this big heavy-lift machine operate unmanned to save the day.”