Automated Blackhawk Helicopter Completes First Flight Test

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Does it seem believable that the wars of the future will be fought entirely with robots while humans are safely miles away, monitoring and controlling? The US military is certainly making a case for such a scenario. The latest installation is a JUH-60A Blackhawk helicopter that flies, lands, and avoids threats – all without a pilot.

The autonomous Blackhawk’s official name is Rotorcraft Airscrew Systems Concept Airborne Laboratory, or RASCAL, and it has just completed its first test flight at the Diablo Mountain Range in San Jose, California. Pilots were actually aboard during the two-hour test flight for an emergency takeover, but turned out they weren’t needed.

RASCAL’s navigation system successfully negotiated an obstacle field with terrain-sensing and statistical processing. It flew within a range of 200 to 400 feet above ground and identified a landing site – a forest clearing – and was able to hover 60 feet above the site within 1-foot accuracy. Risk assessment and threat avoidance tests were also considered a success.

Importantly, the RASCAL was operating on the fly. “No prior knowledge of the terrain was used,” Matthew Whalley, the Army’s Autonomous Rotorcraft Project lead, told Dailytech.

The RASCAL is just the latest for a military that is serious about removing its soldiers from harm’s way and letting robots do the dirty work. Already 30 percent of all US military aircraft are drones. And the navy’s X-47B robotic fighter is well on course to become the first autonomous air vehicle to take off and land on an aircraft carrier. Just days ago it completed its first catapult takeoff (from the ground).

The RASCAL is the latest automated aerial weapon for an administration that has enthusiastically embraced drones. And we’re sure to hear about other robotic weapons as the face of war continues to become less human.

Peter Murray

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.

Discussion — 4 Responses

  • caiokk December 11, 2012 on 10:38 am

    “Humans safely miles away”? Who, exactly, is safe? Have you ever looked at the civilian death toll of the Predator (and other) drones being utilized by the US Military?

    • Peter Murray caiokk December 11, 2012 on 1:30 pm

      Apologies, caiokk. I supposed I was narrowly referring to safety from the operators’ point of view, not the targets’ point of view.

  • anthrobotic December 12, 2012 on 7:51 pm

    Yeah but, putting aside the emotional outrage, in practical use drones do provide a measure of safety & protection for civilians & innocents near a given target.

    Idealism is ideal, but if war and stuff is going to continue – and it is – drones are far, far superior to traditional carpet bombing or the relatively inaccurate attacks from manned aircraft that sorta haphazardly chuck much larger bombs much more likely to level a city block instead of just a building.

    The ability of a drone to linger at higher altitudes and slower speeds allows the pilot to assess the situation, possibly receive real-time updates and intel, and thereby make careful decisions before delivering the fiery death salad from above. Assuredly mistakes will be made, and eliminating all collateral damage is impossible. But see, it’s all about the degree of severity, man. It’s non-intuitive, but drones don’t dehumanize war, quite the opposite – using drones saves pilots, results in increased safety for near-target civilians, and more accurately & efficiently BBQs the bad guys.

    So yeah, just saying.
    Related: “WarBot Update: What to Call the Drones Now that They’re here at Home – Suggestions?” –

    -Reno at

  • Robert Schreib December 16, 2012 on 3:29 pm

    ?? Could they create a miniature version of a military drone that could be installed in ALL elementary schools, that automatically activates when it hears a gunshot so a 24/7 remote operator can use it to take out the NEXT spree shooter like in the Newtown, Connecticut elementary school massacre?