Aircraft

System that brings autonomous capabilities to existing helicopters demoed for Marines

System that brings autonomous ...
 A UH-1 Huey equipped with an AACUS autonomy kit makes an approach for landing during final testing at Marine Corps Base Quantico
 A UH-1 Huey equipped with an AACUS autonomy kit makes an approach for landing during final testing at Marine Corps Base Quantico
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Sgt. Dionte Jones watches as a UH-1 Huey equipped with AACUS autonomy kit departs the landing zone following a resupply mission he requested using a handheld tablet
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Sgt. Dionte Jones watches as a UH-1 Huey equipped with AACUS autonomy kit departs the landing zone following a resupply mission he requested using a handheld tablet
 A UH-1 Huey equipped with an AACUS autonomy kit makes an approach for landing during final testing at Marine Corps Base Quantico
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 A UH-1 Huey equipped with an AACUS autonomy kit makes an approach for landing during final testing at Marine Corps Base Quantico
 A Marine offloads cargo from a UH-1 Huey equipped with an AACUS autonomy kit
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 A Marine offloads cargo from a UH-1 Huey equipped with an AACUS autonomy kit
The AACUS program is developing an innovative capability that enables autonomous flight, obstacle avoidance, approaches, landings and takeoffs in any existing rotary-wing aircraft
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The AACUS program is developing an innovative capability that enables autonomous flight, obstacle avoidance, approaches, landings and takeoffs in any existing rotary-wing aircraft
 Sgt. Dionte Jones demonstrates to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert B. Neller, how he uses a handheld tablet to request resupply from a UH-1 Huey equipped with AACUS
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 Sgt. Dionte Jones demonstrates to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert B. Neller, how he uses a handheld tablet to request resupply from a UH-1 Huey equipped with AACUS
A Marine Corps Bell UH-1Y Venom lands using the Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS) at Urban Training Center Marine Corps Base Quantico, Vairginia
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A Marine Corps Bell UH-1Y Venom lands using the Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS) at Urban Training Center Marine Corps Base Quantico, Vairginia
AACUS sensor suite
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AACUS sensor suite

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)

1 comment
guzmanchinky
That is incredible. And if it gets shot down, oh well, just send another one. Excellent technology!