The Marine Corps will take over testing of an autonomous UH-1 Huey after a successful final test of the robotic aircraft on Dec. 13 in which it demonstrated the ability to perform combat resupply missions without a pilot.

Developed by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and Aurora Flight Sciences, the Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS) performed three simulated combat resupply missions Wednesday at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. The helicopter, dubbed AEH-1, now moves to the Marine Corps for further testing and possible acquisition.

Test Pilot Jason Jewell discusses his experience with manning the UH-1H during its autonomous resupply mission with Aurora Flight Sciences' AACUS system. (Photo by Amy Kluber, Rotor and Wing International)
Test Pilot Jason Jewell discusses his experience with manning the UH-1H during its autonomous resupply mission with Aurora Flight Sciences’ AACUS system. (Photo by Amy Kluber, Rotor and Wing International)

Aurora 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 system operated autonomously during the demonstration, while a safety pilot remained onboard in case anything went wrong and to control the engine, which is not autonomous. Aurora said the use of a safety pilot also allows for a rapid development and testing cycle focusing on autonomy rather than vehicle management. A field officer is also required to operate a tablet on the ground to initiate commands to the helicopter.

Aurora has developed multiple technologies under the AACUS program: the digital flight control system which 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.

In the demonstration’s first test mission, the AACUS-equipped aircraft operated independently through landing after an operator-initiated launch.

The second mission was similar to the first, but the Huey instead flew on a path across a portion of the site terrain that had more trees in its line of sight, demonstrating its ability to detect and avoid obstacles throughout its flight path.

In the third, the helicopter landed in the landing zone that had an obstacle in the way. In this scenario, the field operator initiated a waveoff before landing, after which the helicopter recalculated a different route to safely land in the landing zone, where the aircraft remained for a static display.

AEH-1 is fitted with onboard lidar and camera sensors that enable it to detect and avoid obstacles and evaluate designated landing zones. 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 Helicopter Textron [TXT] 206 variants.

“This is more than just an unmanned helicopter,” Walter Jones, ONR executive director. “AACUS is an autonomy kit that can be placed on any rotary-wing platform and provide it with an autonomous capability. Imagine a Marine Corps unit deployed in a remote location, in rough terrain, needing ammunition, water, batteries or even blood. 

Previous demonstrations have showcased the system’s autonomy and interactions with trained operators. The most recent demonstration was the first in which the aircraft performed cargo and utility missions in an operationally-relevant training environment with Marine interaction. As part of the demonstration, Marines loaded supplies for the aircraft before clearing the system for autonomous takeoff.

“The Marines’ vision for the future of vertical lift operation and support is optionally-piloted aircraft,” said AACUS Program Manager Stephen Chisarik. “Aurora’s system enables any rotary-wing aircraft to detect and react to hazards in the flight path, and make appropriate adjustments to keep the aircraft safe.”

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.

“The H-1 platform that it’s on is merely a distractor for us from an experimental standpoint. We’re looking at everything that is possible to do, and we’re not completely bent on one function that is logistics,” said Lt. Col. Dan Schmitt, head of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory’s field testing branch. “The sky is the limit.”

Operating the software is like calling an Uber or ordering a pizza with no specialized operational training required, according to Marine Cpl. Christopher Osterhaus, the remote flight operator during the demonstration. The system requires a remote flight operator who uses a tablet device equipped with an Android app to control and supervise the aircraft during resupply missions.

“In between five and 15 minutes, I had a great understanding of how this system worked,” Osterhaus said. “On the tablet itself, I can specify what I want, where I want and when I want it.”

The need for autonomous aerial resupply surfaced during Marine Corps operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Cargo helicopters and resupply convoys of trucks bringing fuel, food, water, ammunition and medical supplies to the front lines made juicy, high-value but relatively unguarded targets for ambush by militants or roadside bomb attacks.

The Marine Corps for a time operated two Kaman 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 brass but were eventually grounded. AEH-1 could fill the requirement for a program of record to perform a similar mission both on land and from ship to shore.

“We’ve developed this great capability ahead of requirements and it’s up to us to determine how to use it,” said Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, commanding general, Marine Corps Combat Development Command. “The young Marines today have grown up in a tech-savvy society, which is an advantage. We’ve got to keep pushing and moving this technology forward.”