QUANTICO, Va. -- The Marine Corps on Wednesday hosted the final demonstration of a new type of autonomous aircraft technology that could radically transform how the U.S. military resupplies combat units.
A team of officials from Aurora Flight Sciences, a subsidiary of Boeing Co., demonstrated the company's Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System, or AACUS -- a special package of hardware and software combined into an autonomous kit capable of being mounted on multiple airframes.
AACUS is designed to deliver vital combat supplies such as ammunition, fuel, food, water and even blood to Marines and other combat troops operating in remote locations that are inaccessible by vehicles and greatly increase the risks to pilots flying resupply missions, Aurora officials said.
"It has a software package that enables it to make mission decisions on its own; it has a suite of sensors that allows it get information from the environment to inform its decision, and it is pushing the envelope on autonomous capabilities," Walter Jones, executive director of the Office of Naval Research, told an audience at the demonstration.
"It can navigate to the location, even in a GPS-compromised area; it can determine the best location for a safe landing ... in low-visibility conditions," he said.
AACUS began as a response to a Marine Corps urgent need statement. It is currently installed onto a Vietnam War-era UH-1 helicopter.
Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh called AACUS a "fantastic program," that is "in some ways ahead of our requirements."
Walsh is the commanding general of Marine Corps Combat Development Command and the deputy commandant for Combat Development and Integration.
"This is one capability that we are moving out on very quickly," he said. "This gives us that capability to distribute and move logistics forward in an autonomous way."
During the demonstration, the AACUS flew supplies into two separate forward operating base settings and then demonstrated how Marines on the ground could stop or postpone the AACUS from landing to avoid an unseen hazard, by simply pressing a button on a special tablet.
Despite its sophistication, the AACUS carried a backup pilot, in case of problems with the system and to perform certain operations, Aurora officials said.
Jason Jewel, a retired Marine major who spent 14 years on active duty flying helicopters and the V-22 Osprey, said one of his primary tasks Wednesday was to engage the autopilot system while on the ground.
"Once it is engaged, I get on the radio and clear the ground operator to launch ... and then he launches me from the computer, and then after that I don't need to touch the flight controls," said Jewel, who is Aurora's chief test pilot for the AACUS program.
"I did not have to take over today; takeoff to landing was fully automated," he said.
The next step is to put AACUS "in the hands" of Marines in Sea Dragon 2015, Phase II scheduled for fiscal 2018, Wash said.
Aurora officials said several other services are interested in AACUS, although "it is targeted right now for Marine Corps needs," Jones said.
The training program for AACUS takes less than a day and is geared toward personnel without aviation experience.
"They will do a request and that [aircraft] will come to them ... it's completely autonomous, and it will fly into the landing zone just like a pilot would," said Dennis Baker, AACUS program manager for the Office of Naval Research.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.