In 2012, the US Office of Naval Research (ONR) began a five-year, US$98-million program to develop an autonomous flight system that could be retrofitted to existing helicopters. Now, Aurora Flight Sciences has successfully demonstrated such a system at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. A US Marine Corps UH-1H helicopter fitted with the Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS) demonstrated its autonomous flight and operational capabilities on multiple flights as it executed a series of re-supply missions under various conditions.

The AACUS program was inspired by difficulties encountered by US Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq, where re-supply helicopter flights were hindered by enemy fire and improvised explosive devices. To make such missions safer while minimizing the risk to US and allied personnel, Aurora was tasked with developing a system that could make existing helicopters pilot-optional.

To accomplish this, AACUS is a lidar and camera sensor suite that can be fitted to a helicopter along with an autonomous flight control system. Unlike other systems that require an experienced pilot remotely operating the aircraft (often requiring line of sight), AACUS has software that allows it to autonomously detect and avoid obstacles as well as evaluating a landing zone before attempting to touch down. It is even capable of selecting an alternative landing site and is not dependent on GPS.

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"The Marines' vision for the future of vertical lift operation and support is optionally-piloted aircraft," says 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."

Where previous tests have concentrated on demonstrating AACUS's autonomous flight capabilities, the most recent series of tests put the system to work on cargo and utility missions. During the test flights, the helicopter operated without a pilot, though a Marine on the ground with only 15 minutes of training interacted with it by means of a tablet app. A safety pilot was also aboard to fulfil FAA conditions for its Special Airworthiness Certificate. The exercises included Marines loading the helicopter with supplies, then using the app to clear it for autonomous takeoff and flight.

According to Aurora, the Quantico tests complete the third and final phase of the five-year prototype program and AACUS will now be handed over to the Marine Corps for evaluation and possible acquisition.

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"This is more than just an unmanned helicopter," says Dr. 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.

"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."

Sources: ONR, Aurora (PDF)

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