A Team of Drones Pulls Off a (Staged) Search-and-Rescue Mission


Lockheed Martin-Sikorsky merger leads to unique demonstration involving drones large and small.

In a Nov. 8 demonstration, three Lockheed Martin and one Sikorsky unmanned aircraft worked together to respond to a fire at Griffiss International Airport in upstate New York, one of six FAA-approved UAV testing sites.

First, a small remote-controlled Indago quadcopter identified the fire using a thermal camera, then passed location data to a remotely piloted K-MAX unmanned cargo copter, which fetched a bucket of fire retardant and smothered the blaze (reprising a 2014 Lockheed demonstration).

The operators then deployed a remote-controlled fixed-wing Desert Hawk 3.1 to hunt for a “lost camper” using a combination of infrared and electro-optical sensors. The Hawk transfered this data to a Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft, or SARA, an S-76 helicopter refitted to fly without crew. The SARA, with minimal human guidance, used various sensors to autonomously find a suitable landing site, pick up a survivor, and return home.

This was the first demonstration that brought together unmanned helicopters from both Lockheed and Sikorsky.

“This was just a little over a year from the acquisition that were able to find a few points where we were able to … bring a new a capability to the market that didn’t exist before because we were able to work together. I think we’re going to find a lot more of those,” said Jon McMillen, who leads business development for the K-MAX.

Igor Cherepinsky, who runs Sikorsky’s autonomy programs, said that technicians were able to get the SARA and KMAX talking to one another in less than a week.

“Both K-MAX and SARA are really mature systems,” he said.

Lockheed and partner Boeing are in a tight battle with Bell Helicopter to build new helicopters for the Army’s Future Vertical Lift program. But Lockheed stands out as the only player whose unmanned helicopter has actually seen action: K-MAX flew more than 600 cargo missions for Marines in Afghanistan. And last year, the Army successfully wired a Sikorsky Black Hawk to demonstrate unmanned flight as well.

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