Self-Flying Helicopters Will Buddy Up On Search-And-Rescue Missions

Lockheed Martin/YouTube

Teams of robot auto-flying helicopters are set to go on daring rescue missions, buddying up to give each other vital data to locate missing people and transport them to safety. Lockheed Martin, the same company that wants to put weaponized laser systems on battlefields and fire a laboratory into the orbit of Mars, has demonstrated how an unmanned aerial system can scout ahead and relay information, ready for an optionally-piloted larger helicopter to swoop in and save the day.

You can be forgiven for thinking it all sounds a bit science fiction. But as the company explains, it’s not just about making things that look cool. These advancements have the potential to save lives.

“When lives are at risk, advanced human-machine teams can complete dangerous missions without putting others in harm’s way,” Dan Spoor, Lockheed Martin’s vice president of unmanned systems, said in a statement on Tuesday. “The advances that Lockheed Martin is pioneering in autonomous and unmanned technologies will lead to improved safety and efficiency for humanitarian aid, first response and other civil, commercial and military operations in the air, on land and undersea.”

There’s two machines at work here. The Desert Hawk 3.1 is an unmanned aircraft system that works with a Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA) on search-and-rescue missions. The Desert Hawk scouts ahead, locates the target, and relays that information to the SARA, which can find a safe place to land and bring the person on board. No word on what it’ll be like getting rescued by a helicopter flying itself, but presumably it’ll be great fun.

Lockheed also showed how a Kaman K-MAX helicopter can work with an Indago quadrotor, with the smaller aircraft identifying fires and the Kaman filling up a bucket of water and pouring it over the identified target. The two systems are made possible by Sikorsky MATRIX, a communication technology that keeps the two aircraft tethered, and a new unmanned aircraft traffic management system, vital for airports to keep track of which machines are flying where.

It may be a while before these machines hit