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.