U.S. Marines recently landed K-MAX and MH-6 Little Bird helicopters autonomously using an i-Pad like mini-tablet device during a demonstration at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., Navy and Corps officials said.
“With one touch of a mini-tablet in their hand, they have been able to autonomously land a full-size helicopter onto an unprepared landing site,” said Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, Chief of Naval Research.
The technology, called Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System or AACUS, uses advanced algorithms in conjunction with LIDAR and electro-optical/infrared, or EO/IR, sensor technology, Klunder explained.
“It’s got a combination of EO/IR and LIDAR built into the system connected to a light computer that allows the helicopter to land properly,” he said.
The sensors are engineered to enable the helicopter to navigate through what’s called a degraded visual environment, a term referring to instances where snow, fog, sand or inclement weather would otherwise complicate efforts to navigate or land the helicopter.
The helicopter appears as an icon or graphic over a digital map display on the mini-tablet used by Marines to direct the helicopter where to land. However, if sent to an obscured, blocked or less than ideal landing spot, the AACUS system can autonomously send a message to the operator with instructions to find a better landing location for the helicopter, Klunder explained.
Reducing the operator burden and being able to operate and land autonomously brings a wealth of advantages to forward-positioned forces, many of whom may need ammo, supplies, food, fuel or other cargo delivered in a high-threat environment.
“We’re talking about delivering 5,000 pounds of cargo and critical life-saving equipment safely to our sailors and marines. This is truly leap-ahead technology with one touch of a tablet,” Klunder said. “Now you have the ability to operate in more austere environments with unmanned aircraft.”
In addition to obvious military applications such as cargo delivery and medevac missions in combat, civil disaster relief and humanitarian operations could also benefit from AACUS technology, Klunder said.
With a weight of 100-pounds, the AACUS system is designed to easily integrate on a range of air platforms and could someday be configured to fly CH-53 Sea Knight or V-22 Osprey aircraft.
Furthermore, by removing the stress on manpower otherwise needed to operate aircraft, AACUS can enable 24/7 around the clock operations.
AACUS enables the helicopters to take-off, fly and land without needing to be tele-operated or remotely piloted. While demonstrated on two helicopters, the AACUS technology is engineered to be platform agnostic, meaning it could easily be configured to work with other aircraft.
The Marines have been flying unmanned helicopter cargo resupply missions in Afghanistan for months with the K-MAX helicopter now, however these helicopters need highly trained pilots to remotely navigate their every move to a prepared and pre-determined landing site, said Brig. Gen. Kevin Killea, Commanding General, Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory.
AACUS technology however, recently demonstrated that the same K-MAX helicopter can be autonomously piloted from a small mini-tablet, he added.
“This is taking UAS to the next level by introducing autonomy that works. Unprepared landing site open up a myriad of landing possibilities in operating environments as opposed to the detailed planning you would have to go through today with cargo UAS,” Killea said.
A big advantage to the AACUS technology is that, unlike the training requirements for current unmanned aircraft system pilots, there is no particular training required to operate the system, Klunder explained.
The AACUS program began in 2012 and is slated to extend for at least five years at a cost of roughly just under $100 million, service leaders said. The program is currently funded through 2018.
Upcoming phase II developments with AACUS will include the exploration of more advanced obstacle avoidance technology, Klunder and Killea added. Phase II will also include testing the system in more difficult weather conditions and in GPS-denied environments.
The AACUS technology is currently made by Lockheed Martin and Aurora Flight Sciences, both of whom have been developing the system through a deal with the Office of Naval Research. As Navy and Marine Corps officials have said plans are to use a single AACUS system as the program moves forward.
Klunder said that AACUS is a year or two away from being ready for operational use.