Magazine article National Defense

Autonomous Helicopters Seen as Wave of the Future

Magazine article National Defense

Autonomous Helicopters Seen as Wave of the Future

Article excerpt

QUANTICO, Va. - On a cold morning in December, a UH-1 "Huey" helicopter took off from Landing Zone Stork at Marine Corps Base Quantico. It flew about two miles before touching down in between buildings at Landing Zone Egret. After Marines on the ground unloaded cargo from the aircraft, it took off again and returned to LZ Stork. While the event might sound mundane, it could be a watershed moment in military aviation for one key reason - the Huey was performing all of these flight operations autonomously.

The demonstration of the autonomous aerial cargo/utility system prototype, also known as AACUS, offered a preview of what defense officials expect to see on future battlefields.

The technology is the product of a partnership between the Office of Naval Research and an industry team led by Aurora Flight Sciences, which is now a subsidiary of Boeing. The project has been in the works for several years. Aurora was first awarded a contract for prototype efforts in 2012.

The Marines have been using unmanned helicopters such as K-Max in Afghanistan for several years, but AACUS is different. It is not a platform, but a tool for upgrading older aircraft like the Huey to give them cutting-edge flight capabilities. It will require less input from personnel on the ground and will not be dependent on GPS for navigation, which reduces its vulnerability to electronic warfare attacks, officials said.

"This is more than just an unmanned helicopter," ONR Executive Director Walter Jones said during remarks at the demonstration, which was attended by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller and other military brass. "AACUS is an autonomy kit that can be placed on any rotarywing platform and provide it with an autonomous capability."

Fritz Langford, the project's chief engineer at Aurora, said the technology includes platform-agnostic computer algorithms, commercial-off-the-shelf sensors and a robust flight control system.

"It has a software package that enables it to make mission decisions on its own," Jones explained. "It has a suite of sensors that allows it to get information from the environment to inform its decisions. And it is pushing the envelope on autonomous capabilities."

During several flights at the Quantico demonstration, the Huey dodged obstacles such as tree lines, buildings and landing zone hazards.

Jones envisioned a scenario where Marines at a forward operating base or other austere environment could call for resupply and have it delivered without putting air crews at risk.

"Imagine for a moment that you are part of a Marine Corps company deployed in a remote location in rough terrain," he said. "You're low on ammunition and water and batteries or even blood, and you place a request for resupply. ... An AACUS-enabled helicopter can ... navigate to the location even in a GPS-compromised area, it can determine the best location for a safe landing without the need for a forward ground control station, and do all of this in lowvisibility conditions."

The technology requires very little training for warfighters, Aurora representatives noted. Marine infantryman Cpl. Christopher Osterhaus said it only took him about 15 minutes to master the tablet that communicates with the system.

"I can specify what I want, where I want it and when I want it" by typing in grid coordinates or having the technology automatically pinpoint the tablet user's location, he said during a press conference after the demonstration.

"As far as the tablet interface, it's incredibly comparable to [ordering] an Uber or ordering a pizza," he said. "Once you hit 'submit' you get something called mission view, and it [indicates] where the aircraft is, when it's on its way to you, when it's about to land and when it's on the ground."

After the supplies are offloaded and the landing zone has been cleared, "I swipe right and as I do that the bird begins to take off," he added.

Marine Corps leaders are gung-ho about the technology and its warfighting implications. …

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