While aircraft such as the X-47B are paving the way for unmanned aircraft filling combat roles, autonomous aircraft are also being developed to tackle more mundane – but still dangerous – military operations. To this end, the first fully autonomous resupply, reconnaissance, surveillance and target-acquisition demonstration using the Squad Mission Support System (SMSS) unmanned ground vehicle, K-MAX unmanned helicopter and Gyrocam optical sensor was recently conducted at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Conducted by Lockheed Martin and the US Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC), the demonstration was part of the 18-month "Extending the Reach of the Warfighter through Robotics" program that launched in March to demonstrate technology designed to take warfighters out of harm's way.

The demonstration at Fort Benning involved a K-MAX helicopter, which in 2011 became the first unmanned aircraft system to deliver cargo in-theater when it made its first combat resupply mission to the US Marine Corp in Afghanistan. This time, the aircraft delivered an SMSS by sling load as part of a scenario where soldiers were defending a village. The SMSS, which has also seen deployment in Afghanistan, is the largest unmanned vehicle to have been deployed with US ground forces and is designed for unmanned ground transport and support for light, early entry and special operations forces.

After being delivered by the K-MAX, the SMSS made its way to an observation point, raised its Gyrocam 9-inch, mid-wave sensor and commenced scanning of the surrounding area for enemy forces. This sensor also provided constant video surveillance throughout each phase of the demonstration, including while in flight. Lockheed says that in an actual mission, if the SMSS observed enemy forces, the vehicle's remote operator would notify the commander on the ground, who would decide on the appropriate course of action.

"This demonstration signifies another use for robots and this brings us closer to the pinnacle of how we use unmanned systems," said Dan Spoor, vice president of Aviation and Unmanned Systems at Lockheed Martin’s Mission Systems and Training business. "There is significant potential for these types of systems for humanitarian aid, the civilian oil and gas industry, firefighting and for other military applications."

For the demonstration, both the K-MAX and SMSS were equipped with mobile Satellite Communications (SATCOM) systems and local line-of-sight communications systems. The vehicle's activities were controlled and monitored by a remote operations center also equipped with SATCOM. Although a safety pilot was on board the K-MAX, Lockheed says they didn't take over the controls at any stage of the demonstration.

"Fully autonomous capabilities as we’ve just demonstrated will allow service members to focus on important missions and remain out of harm’s way," said Scott Greene, vice president of Ground Vehicles for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control. "This successful demonstration with both unmanned air and ground vehicles shows us that these missions are not only possible, but can be available much sooner than you would expect."