Unmanned cargo helicopters have been proven in Afghanistan, resupplying remote forward bases and taking convoys off dangerous roads. But they fly carefully preplanned missions, or require a trained operator to take control at the drop zone.
The vision is for a machine that can be called up on demand, without specialist training, to negotiate obstacles and threats, select a safe landing zone and unload supplies or evacuate casualties—all autonomously.
This is the goal of the Office of Naval Research's (ONR) Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (Aacus) program, which will stage its first flight demonstrations in February and March next year. Aacus is developing a sensing and computing capability that will be portable between platforms, enabling any fly-by-wire helicopter to become an autonomous logistics machine.
Aurora Flight Sciences and Lockheed Martin are working on Phase 1 of Aacus under 18-month contracts awarded in October 2012, totaling $28 million. Aurora plans to demonstrate its system on Boeing's H-6U Unmanned Little Bird. Lockheed will use the Kaman K-Max, now flying unmanned cargo missions in Afghanistan as well as research flights for the U.S. Army.
Critical design reviews were completed last week. “I am very positive about the program, which you cannot say about all science and technology programs,” says Roger McGinnis, ONR's Aacus program manager. “We are seeing them progressing quickly, with a lot of success. In simulations, the algorithms are working quite well. And the different hardware is coming along well.”
Aacus has its origins in Afghanistan, where improvised explosive devices generated the need to get convoys off roads and deliver supplies by air, while reducing the workload and danger for helicopter crews. The result is a program pushing the frontiers of airborne autonomy while potentially spinning off capabilities to the existing fleet.
For the Phase 1 fly-off planned for early next year at the Marine Corps' Quantico base in Virginia, ONR wants an untrained field operator—“not an aviator,” says McGinnis—to be able to request resupply using a tablet or mobile device. The “simple formatted request” will go to a main operating base some distance away, which will launch an aircraft in response.