During a recent exercise in California, Marines at a simulated combat outpost were resupplied by a robotic rotorcraft that could locate, fly to and land at their position without human input.
Although a human pilot was in the cockpit of the Bell [TXT] UH-1 Huey, that Marine was not in control of the aircraft as it conducted multiple resupply missions at varying distances laden with a variety of payloads and received fuel from a forward aerial refuel point.
Both accomplishments were firsts for the Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS) at the Marine Corps’ Integrated Training Exercise 18-3 at Twentynine Palms, Calif. AACUS is a sort of robotic brain that when retrofitted onto legacy aircraft like the Huey enables autonomous flight between prescribed locations with minimal input from a human controller.
Manufacturer Aurora Flight Sciences describes AACUS as a software and sensor package that allows for autonomous and remote operation of rotorcraft in and out of austere landing areas. Key to the technology is what the company calls “cognitive autonomy,” meaning the system can determine safe landing zones, and detect and avoid obstacles — like power lines and trees — with minimal human involvement.
The May exercise was the second time the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory demonstrated the AACUS system aboard the Huey, but Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, chief of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, envisions the technology on both legacy and future logistics aircraft supporting distributed expeditionary operations.
"Now we're grinding through the analysis," Walsh told reporters June 6 at an industry day for a related program in Fredericksburg, Va. "What I want is, 'OK, what does that mean, what reduction in aircraft, what reduction in trucks do we need now that we're starting to prove this out so that AACUS can deploy.'"
The Marine Corps for a time operated two Kaman [KAMNA] K-MAX enmeshed-rotor helicopters outfitted with Lockheed Martin-developed [LMT] autonomy kits to deliver tons of supplies to forward operating bases in Afghanistan. Those helicopters drew strong praise from enlisted Marines and top commanders.
“What we’re seeing is being able to do that independent autonomous operations, similar to what we were doing with K-Max,” Walsh said. “We definitely see a lot of that capability, that technology going onto MUX, for sure. … This will work and it will be part of MUX, but I think it’ll also definitely be part of whatever we come up with for that logistics capability, whatever we develop or what we leverage from industry on a COTS solution.”
Within the Marines’ pursuit of a new high-end ship-based unmanned aerial system under the MUX program, the logistics role has been relegated to third-tier status, according to Brig. Gen. James Adams, who heads the Capabilities Development Directorate at Marine Corps Combat Development and Integration Command. As the service focuses on airborne early warning, electronic warfare, reconnaissance and communications capabilities for MUX, logistics has been shunted to another platform entirely, Adams said.
“We pushed OAS, or the ability to shoot or fire weapons from MUX down a tier level because, I, we, have to trade, we wanted to keep all the tier-one requirements in place and we will trade Tier 2 and Tier 3,” Dodge said at the industry day. “We specifically stated in the RFI that we have offloaded those to other platforms.”
Whatever optionally manned aircraft results from Future Vertical Lift (FVL) likely will take on the role of escorting manned aircraft like the MV-22.
An “alternate platform” will assume autonomous resupply and logistics roles, Adams said. That platform probably will be an existing aircraft retrofitted with autonomous flight controls.
“That will probably become a COTS solution at some point in the future as industries like Google, Amazon, Walmart start talking about unmanned delivery of cargo,” Adams said. “We feel like that’s going to accelerate on its own and we’ll just leverage that COTS solution at some point in the future.”
Walsh agreed that autonomous resupply and other technologies like collision avoidance that enable robotic control of aircraft are areas that commercial industry is outpacing the government. For point-to-point equipment delivery, the Marine Corps’ pocket book is better served by buying what companies like Google and Amazon have already created, he said.
“Why would we go develop this on our own when they’re pretty close where we could just take something,” he said. “Look at all the things we’re doing right now. All of our Group 1 UASs are all commercial stuff that we’ve brought in and militarized. We would take their thing that they developed for logistics and delivery and militarize it. We’d much rather do that then go develop it.”
Aurora has developed multiple technologies under the AACUS program: the digital flight control system that enables the UH-1 to fly autonomously; and the Tactical Autonomous aerial Logistics System (TALOS) autonomy technology. The AEH-1 was granted a Special Airworthiness Certificate by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in October, allowing the aircraft to operate autonomous with only a safety pilot onboard to monitor the controls.
The system is comprised solely of commercial-off-the-shelf hardware connected by an open architecture into which new sensors and processors can be plugged and allows for scaling up and down to fit multiple rotorcraft. The entire system consists of lidar-based sensors on the nose, belly and tail boom of the aircraft, in addition to the tablet-based software operated by a field officer.
ONR and Aurora developed AACUS to be aircraft agnostic. It has already been tested aboard a Boeing [BA] AH-6 Little Bird and multiple Bell 206 variants.
Many of those technologies will, in the near term, boost the combat effectiveness of legacy platforms like the H-1 and V-22 while feeding into the leap-ahead capability under development in the FVL, which is headed by the Army.