Aurora Flight Sciences has completed a successful final demonstration of its autonomous Bell UH-1H Huey testbed, wrapping up a five-year program for the Office of Naval Research (ONR). The December 13 demo proved that the Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS) can progress to field testing by the U.S. Marine Corps. The Marines plan to begin two years of trials at their combat training center in Twentynine Palms, California, this spring.
AACUS is a sensor and software package that can be integrated into any rotary-wing aircraft. It combines a sensor suite, supplied by Near Earth Technologies, a spin-off from Carnegie Mellon University, with a digital flight control system and autonomy technology developed by Aurora. The combination allows a rotorcraft to fly an autonomously planned mission and to receive basic instructions—such as to fly to a specific coordinate and land within a 50-meter radius. Onboard Lidar, a visual-spectrum camera and a polarized camera—primarily for detecting shallow water and mud—allow the aircraft to detect and avoid en route obstacles, such as wires and trees, and select a suitable landing area within its target, with no onboard map or pre-mission guidance.
The final demonstration included one mission with two large equipment cases serving as obstacles in a landing zone. Upon arrival, the Huey maneuvered until it could touch down within the designated landing zone without touching either case.
AACUS was developed to meet needs identified during Marine operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is controlled from the ground using simple interfaces, such as tablets. Users need as little as 15 minutes of training to learn the system.
"Imagine a Marine Corps unit deployed in a remote location, in rough terrain, needing ammunition, water, batteries, or even blood," said Walter Jones, executive director of the ONR. "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."
The Twentynine Palms testing is expected to include supplying isolated units and integrating a fleet of autonomous aircraft into a logistics program supporting multiple units. “We’ve developed this great capability ahead of requirements," said Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, commanding general, Marine Corps Combat Development Command. "It’s up to us to determine how to use it.”
In a previous test of autonomous operations from 2011-2014, the Marines deployed two Kaman K-Max helicopters to Afghanistan, where they carried underslung loads. Lockheed Martin was the prime contractor, and it later explored the use of an autonomous K-Max in firefighting operations.