Magazine article National Defense

Military Ponders Future of Robotic Cargo Movers

Magazine article National Defense

Military Ponders Future of Robotic Cargo Movers

Article excerpt

The K-MAX unmanned helicopter was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 to haul cargo in and out of warzones. It allowed U.S. forces to cut ground convoys that were vulnerable to roadside bombs. Although initially scheduled only for a six-month deployment, the aircraft is still supporting operations in theater three years later, having flown more than 1,900 missions in which it carried 5.5 million pounds of cargo.

The success of the K-MAX is indisputable, military officials have said. However, it still relies on operators to remotely control the aircraft. A fully autonomous aircraft or vehicle able to carry supplies and equipment in and out of challenging, dynamic environments remains a technology of the future.

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To move closer to that goal, industry has bankrolled internal research and jumped aboard various technology development initiatives led by the services.

One such effort--the Office of Naval Research's autonomous aerial cargo/utility system, or AACUS--aims to create an autonomy retrofit package that can be plugged into helicopters, said Max Snell, ONR's program manager.

"Right now we're doing demonstrations under very simulated environments, so [the technology is] relatively immature. We're not at a point yet where we'll fly" without a pilot onboard for safety, he said.

The AACUS system consists of a sensor suite, computers and software, and is controlled with a tablet. To operate the system, a user simply plugs a destination into the tablet, and the helicopter will take off; determine its own route, avoid obstacles and land autonomously, Snell said. This is a departure from the K-MAX, which needs remote operators to navigate it to a landing site.

During the first phase of the AACUS program, Lockheed Martin and Aurora Technologies developed autonomy systems that were demonstrated at Marine Corps Base Quantico in February and March. Lockheed flew its autonomy package on a K-MAX helicopter, while Aurora's system was integrated with Boeing's unmanned Little Bird. In May, ONR selected Aurora to move on to the second phase.

ONR and Aurora will work on maturing technologies such as obstacle detection and avoidance and terrain classification, Snell said. They also will test how the system functions in conditions where communications and GPS are not working properly.

"We're going to pay a lot more attention to the ruggedization and weatherization of the system, because right now the way it's set up ... it's not production ready by any means," he said.

ONR wants Aurora to further develop its light-detection and ranging sensor to operate in the presence of intense dust, rain, snow and humidity, he said. If successful, such technologies could be useful for manned helicopters flown in conditions where pilots have degraded vision.

"We're going to be doing lots of testing in this next phase, both in the laboratory" and in flight tests, Snell said. After phase two wraps up next summer, Aurora has tentative plans to integrate its system onto an unmanned aircraft in the Marine Corps' inventory.

"The program is supposed to end ... in September 2017," he said. "At that point we would hope to have developed a transition plan into a program of record and then be able to hand it off to acquisition." No such plan yet exists.

In addition to participating in the first stage of the AACUS program, the K-MAX in 2013 took part in demonstrations for the Army's autonomous technologies for unmanned air systems program, said Jon McMillen, Lockheed Martin's business development director of unmanned helicopter programs.

"We're working with the Airily to figure out how do we extend" current capabilities, he said. "How do we take those autonomy technologies, refine them and make them more robust so that it could be deployable-ready?"

In demonstrations for the Army's Aviation Applied Technology Directorate, Lockheed Martin showed that the K-MAX could autonomously locate and attach a sling cargo load and change its route if needed to avoid an obstacle. …

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