Autonomous helicopter returns to National Aviation Day event

Groton — Sikorsky's Autonomy Research Aircraft, a helicopter known as SARA that was a draw at last year's National Aviation Day Open House and Tour, will make an appearance at the event again this year.

"The pilots were really engaged with the public, and people were really interested," said Susan Bailey, chairwoman of the Groton Business Association. "It's one of those science-fiction-is-now type things, and people really loved it, and we were delighted when we found out we could get them here again."

The National Aviation Day Open House and Tour, in its fourth year, will take place at Groton-New London Airport from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. This is the second year the GBA has run the event, taking over from the City of Groton Summer in the City program.

Sikorsky is pleased to be back and showing its autonomous helicopter up close.

"Our team of engineers in Stratford are on the leading edge of developing technology that will truly revolutionize flying and we would love for the community to come and learn more about this work," Igor Cherepinsky, director of autonomy programs at Sikorsky, said in an email.

The company outfitted SARA, an S-76 commercial helicopter, with fly-by-wire controls in 2013, to act as a flying lab, Cherepinsky said. When not in flight, the aircraft can test autonomy software and hardware.

By May of 2016, Sikorsky had demonstrated that SARA could autonomously fly 30 miles, with the takeoff, route and landing controlled by a pilot using a tablet on the ground.

This completed the first phase of an $8 million award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System program, or DARPA's ALIAS program. Sikorsky got an additional $9.8 million for the second phase, which was completed since last year's National Aviation Day.

In phase two, flights of two different aircrafts containing automation technology were held along with ground demonstrations of technology responding to simulated flight emergencies.

Cherepinsky said the technology is so easy to use that Sikorsky handed a 13-year-old the tablet, which recognizes gestures like swiping and tapping.

"Our goal is to make flying fundamentally safer and more reliable," Cherepinsky said. "We are developing systems intelligence that will give operators the confidence to fly their large rotorcraft or fixed wing aircraft safely, reliably and affordably as autonomous or optionally piloted aircraft."

Sikorsky is an aircraft manufacturer that was founded in 1925 and is based in Stratford. Previously owned by United Technologies Corporation, it now operates under Lockheed Martin.

SARA is just one of many aeronautical highlights that will be at the airport on Saturday.

Also represented will be the Experimental Aircraft Association, which has a Young Eagles program that provides free airplane rides for kids. In addition, the Newport-based Bird's Eye View Helicopter Tours will be offering 5-minute tours for $30 per person.

Bailey said that, barring deployment, the Air Force will have a C-130 Hercules participating again this year.

Other participating organizations include the Mystic Jet Center, Survival Systems USA, New England Air Museum, Civil Air Patrol and more.

Bailey said she hopes the event will promote aviation to a younger generation of flight enthusiasts.

"... as is the case in so many technical fields, there are so many more potential careers in aviation and aeronautics that people don't realize," she said.

e.moser@theday.com

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