U.S. Marines consider future of helo autonomy kit

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq gave U.S. military planners a visceral sense of the dangers of resupplying Marines, special operators and others in remote combat outposts. If roads existed, they were laced with improved explosive devices, and helicopters were subject to ground fire.

The U.S. Office of Naval Research in 2011 began conceiving of a possible solution: A kit of sensors and software that could be attached to a conventional helicopter to turn it into an autonomous one. The aircraft could then be loaded with supplies and commanded into a combat zone without putting an aircrew at risk.

ONR last month conducted the last in a series of demonstration flights in Virginia with the Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System, military officials say. A Marine with just 15 minutes of training controlled a UH-1 Huey via a tablet computer without incident, though a safety pilot was aboard just in case. The test was conducted at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia.

Next, the Marines will experiment with AACUS in upcoming exercises and decide whether to deploy the technology after more development.

AACUS Program Manager Dennis Baker expects the Marines to “balance their investment in further development of the system against other emergent priorities. It is too soon to know if they will ultimately put the system into the acquisition system.”

He ticks off the now-proven AACUS capabilities: independent control of aircraft; development and execution of flight plans; sensing terrain and determining safe landing sites; avoiding no-fly zones; landing in confined spaces; and sensing and avoiding obstacles. The technology also could serve as a “pilot aid” when GPS and communications are unavailable.

Current unmanned aircraft require an operator with lots of training to manually control the aircraft.

At least one Marine general sounds optimistic about the odds that the service will adopt the AACUS technology: “It’s up to us to determine how to use it,” says Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, commanding general of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command. Walsh says that young Marines have grown up in a technologically savvy society, a big advantage when it comes to autonomous control systems. “We’ve got to keep pushing and moving this technology forward.”

Editor’s note: In the U.S. Navy photo at the top of this article, a UH-1 Huey equipped with an Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System kit makes an approach for landing during final testing at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.

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U.S. Marines consider future of helo autonomy kit