Tablet-controlled unmanned copters deliver the goods for Marines

ONR’s AACUS program seeks to resupply troops in hazardous environments with robotic, autonomous helicopters.

Marines in a recent demonstration used a small tablet device to send autonomous unmanned helicopters on a supply mission, paving the way for the Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System (AACUS).

In a demonstration conducted at Quantico, Va., Marines used an iPad-like tablet to autonomously land K-MAX and MH-6 Little Bird helicopters on to unprepared landing sites, according to the Office of Naval Research, which sponsored the technology's development. The system demonstrated its ability to autonomously avoid obstacles while in flight.

The ACCUS system utilizes LIDAR and electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensors with advanced algorithms to navigate through degraded visual environments, situations in which snow, fog, or sand would deter landing. The system will automatically detect landing conditions and warn users of blocked landing sites, telling the operator to find a better location.  

 

“This is a giant leap in autonomous capabilities for our Marines,” said Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, chief of Naval Research. “Imagine a Marine unit needing more ammunition and water where a helicopter crew would be in peril trying to fly in, either from weather or enemy fire.

“With AACUS, an unmanned helicopter takes the supplies from the base, picks out the optimal route and best landing site closest to the warfighters, lands, and returns to base once the resupply is complete—all with the single touch of a handheld tablet.”

The system is designed to reduce user burden—no specialized training is required and any Marine would only have to simply mark where it wants the helicopter to land. In the recent demonstrations, a Marine with no prior experience with the technology was able to select supplies and destination with only 15 minutes of training.

The unmanned system would also be able to work around the clock by working autonomously. The system allows autonomous take-off, flying, and landing without the need for tele-operation or remote piloting. The lack of a pilot means safer resupply for ground troops without any risk to a human pilot.

The goal of the program is to autonomously conduct cargo delivery and medevac missions, as well as perform civil disaster relief and humanitarian operations in the future.

“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, as reported by DOD Buzz. “Now you have the ability to operate in more austere environments with unmanned aircraft.”

The ACCUS program is built on an open architecture approach for global management of mission planning data, meaning that the technology will be platform independent and be capable of being used on new and legacy aerial systems. Weighing only 100 pounds, the system can be easily integrated on various air platforms such as the CH-53 Sea Knight or V-22 Osprey Aircraft.

Having begun in 2012, the program is currently funded through 2018, costing just under $100 million. The program is entering the second phase of its development, which will focus on more advanced obstacle avoidance, difficult weather conditions, and GPS-denied environments.

The technology is being developed by Lockheed Martin and Aurora Flight Services through a contract with the Office of Naval Research. The ACCUS is expected to be a year or two away from operational use.

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