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During a two-hour demonstration on Dec. 18, two years to the day that it first left the ground, Bell’s V-280 Valor performed everything required for an end-to-end autonomous flight, though pilots were on board to keep an eye on things.
Two separate sorties lasting a total of 120 minutes saw the aircraft fly faster than 180 knots without human hands on the controls.
“Bell demonstrated the elements required of end-to-end autonomous/unmanned flight over two sorties, while two safety pilots on board monitored each step and evaluated the aircraft’s performance,” the company said in a statement. “The various stages were done piece by piece, not as a continuous activity.”
The advanced tiltrotor, which Bell developed as a part of the U.S. Army’s Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstration (JMR-TD) program, made an automatic vertical take-off and entered hover, then made a departure climb, and transitioned to cruise mode. It demonstrated automated waypoint navigation, loitered over an objective, conversion to helicopter mode by rotating its nacelles, approached a designated hover point and then made an automated vertical landing.
All of the maneuvers were flown in the V-280 simulator to test both the aircraft’s software and flight controls.
“Bell first vetted all software in our state-of-the-art systems integration lab before flying upgraded flight control software allowing for different autopilot functionality on Dec. 6,” the company said. “While the V-280 effort focused on the specific air vehicle control laws, other aspects of autonomous flight are being matured company-wide as program agnostic autonomy solutions.”