Helicopters are incredibly difficult to fly. When you see a helicopter hovering in place, the highly trained pilot inside is using both hands, both feet, and a great deal of concentration to make that happen.
Tom Cruise had to train for over 2,000 flying hours in order to fly a helicopter in Mission: Impossible - Fallout, even though his character supposedly had little or no prior experience. In real life, if someone with no experience threw the pilot out of a helicopter and took the controls, they'd be dead within seconds.
Sikorsky is trying to make it so easy to fly a helicopter that almost anyone can do it:
What Sikorsky has developed is more than just a little autonomy, though. The innovation team has built a fascinating, complex sort of hybrid system that makes flying a helicopter so simple that they let me try it after barely 45 minutes on a simulator. What shocks me the most once I’m up in the air is how easy everything is. Sikorsky has put enough work into this tech — on both the flight control and the user interface side — that it was easier to fly than a DJI drone.
The Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA) uses LIDAR and computer vision to see the ground and nearby objects. Instead of the three-control layout of a normal helicopter (cyclic, collective, and pedals), the SARA uses a simplified joystick and a touchscreen tablet that lets you simply tap on a map where the helicopter should go. The computer does most of the work.
Ward gives me a minute to get used to the sensitivity of the inceptors. He tells me to move the helicopter a few hundred feet to our right over the runway number and to point the nose to the south. I tilt the joystick a few degrees, roll the wheel on the lever to my left, and we glide over the pavement. In one fluid movement — and on my first try — I pull off a move that would have taken countless hours to learn and a lot more nerve if I were using the helicopter’s usual controls.
Sikorsky hopes their autonomous flight technology will be useful for things like autonomous taxi services and the military. They also believe the tech they're creating can eventually translate to other types of aircraft beyond helicopters.