Military ponders future of robotic cargo movers.

Author:Insinna, Valerie

The K-MAX unmanned helicopter was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 to haul cargo in and out of warzones. It allowed U.S. forces to cut ground convoys that were vulnerable to roadside bombs. Although initially scheduled only for a six-month deployment, the aircraft is still supporting operations in theater three years later, having flown more than 1,900 missions in which it carried 5.5 million pounds of cargo.

The success of the K-MAX is indisputable, military officials have said. However, it still relies on operators to remotely control the aircraft. A fully autonomous aircraft or vehicle able to carry supplies and equipment in and out of challenging, dynamic environments remains a technology of the future.

To move closer to that goal, industry has bankrolled internal research and jumped aboard various technology development initiatives led by the services.

One such effort--the Office of Naval Research's autonomous aerial cargo/utility system, or AACUS--aims to create an autonomy retrofit package that can be plugged into helicopters, said Max Snell, ONR's program manager.

"Right now we're doing demonstrations under very simulated environments, so [the technology is] relatively immature. We're not at a point yet where we'll fly" without a pilot onboard for safety, he said.

The AACUS system consists of a sensor suite, computers and software, and is controlled with a tablet. To operate the system, a user simply plugs a destination into the tablet, and the helicopter will take off; determine its own route, avoid obstacles and land autonomously, Snell said. This is a departure from the K-MAX, which needs remote operators to navigate it to a landing site.

During the first phase of the AACUS program, Lockheed Martin and Aurora Technologies developed autonomy systems that were demonstrated at Marine Corps Base Quantico in February and March. Lockheed flew its autonomy package on a K-MAX helicopter, while Aurora's system was integrated with Boeing's unmanned Little Bird. In May, ONR selected Aurora to move on to the second phase.

ONR and Aurora will work on maturing technologies such as obstacle detection and avoidance and terrain classification, Snell said. They also will test how the system functions in conditions where communications and GPS are not working properly.

"We're going to pay a lot more attention to the ruggedization and weatherization of the system, because right now the way it's set up ... it's not production ready by any means," he...

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