HARTFORD, Conn. -- Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. is launching a $1 billion venture featuring a pilot-less Black Hawk helicopter as military demand rises for technology to fight two wars.
The Stratford-based helicopter maker and military contractor announced Monday the creation of Sikorsky Innovations, intended to speed the transformation of the mechanical helicopter into a computerized aircraft.
It also will promote projects that are now designing helicopters to fly faster, simulate vision and monitor their own performance.
The Black Hawk is a military workhorse, used in Afghanistan, Iraq, Grenada in 1983, Panama in 1989 and the Gulf War in 1991. It's also part of military packages sold to other nations and has been used in civilian missions such as rescuing snowbound mountain climbers.
The Black Hawk helicopter, used for air assault and medical evacuation, was featured in the book and movie, "Black Hawk Down," chronicling a battle in Somalia in 1993 when two helicopters were shot down, killing 18 soldiers.
Some of the deadliest crashes involving five Black Hawk helicopters in Iraq killed 51 soldiers between 2003 and 2007. The helicopter is relied upon in Afghanistan, a mountainous nation with long stretches of desert and few decent roads.
Unmanned war planes are not recent, but are drawing interest from commanders trying to reduce casualties while not relenting in combat.
"The new thing here is to apply technologies in small airplanes and rotorcraft to the 20,000-pound Black Hawk," said Chris Van Buiten, director of Sikorsky Innovations. "It ups the stakes."
Mark Miller, vice president of research and engineering at the subsidiary of United Technologies Corp., said officials want to harness Sikorsky's rapid growth -- revenue and profit have more than doubled over the past five years -- with technological advances that are remaking helicopters.
Sikorsky Innovations can now "change the game" in the manufacturer's next generation of helicopters, he said.
"It will be chartered with doing things quicker, faster and bringing new technology to markets," Miller said.
Sikorsky will design and build an "optionally piloted helicopter" to resupply troops or engage in battle. It will give commanders a choice between operating a Black Hawk with one pilot or two or none.
"We'll let it adapt to the mission," Van Buiten said.
Sikorsky is jumping into a lucrative and growing market. Steven Zaloga, a senior analyst at Teal Group Corp. in Fairfax, Va., said unmanned aerial vehicles represent "one of the few dynamic markets" in the aerospace industry hit hard in the recession.
The Teal Group estimates the global market for unmanned aerial vehicle hardware will rise from $2.9 billion this year to $5.5 billion in 2019, Zaloga said.
Mark Tattershall, director of marketing and business development at Kaman Corp., a Bloomfield, Conn.-based aerospace manufacturer, said Kaman and Lockheed Martin Corp. demonstrated an unmanned cargo helicopter in Utah last week.
"To control something that's within sight is one challenge," he said. "To control something on the other side of a mountain and have it safely put down a load successfully and safely is a big challenge."
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has developed the A160, which is now being tested by the Army and its network of researchers.
Phil Hunt, a program manager at the agency, said challenges include unmanned aircraft seeing and avoiding other aircraft in federally-regulated or military airspace and the potential dangers of carrying weapons at the time of a crash.
Sikorsky Innovations, which over 10 years will spend $1 billion from Sikorsky and its customers, also is researching technologies that would vastly increase a helicopter's speed, enable helicopters to use computers to see through dust storms kicked up during takeoffs and landings, allow helicopters to gather data about their own condition and tailor the performance for quieter and more comfortable rides if necessary.
"We can allow a helicopter to morph itself for each function," Miller said.