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Unmanned Systems 

Military Ponders Future of Robotic Cargo Movers 

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By Valerie Insinna 



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 said.

ONR wants Aurora to further develop its light-detection and ranging sensor to operate in the presence of intense dust, rain, snow and humidity, he said. If successful, such technologies could be useful for manned helicopters flown in conditions where pilots have degraded vision.

“We’re going to be doing lots of testing in this next phase, both in the laboratory” and in flight tests, Snell said. After phase two wraps up next summer, Aurora has tentative plans to integrate its system onto an unmanned aircraft in the Marine Corps’ inventory.

 “The program is supposed to end ... in September 2017,” he said. “At that point we would hope to have developed a transition plan into a program of record and then be able to hand it off to acquisition.” No such plan yet exists.

In addition to participating in the first stage of the AACUS program, the K-MAX in 2013 took part in demonstrations for the Army’s autonomous technologies for unmanned air systems program, said Jon McMillen, Lockheed Martin’s business development director of unmanned helicopter programs.

“We’re working with the Army to figure out how do we extend” current capabilities, he said. “How do we take those autonomy technologies, refine them and make them more robust so that it could be deployable-ready?”

In demonstrations for the Army’s Aviation Applied Technology Directorate, Lockheed Martin showed that the K-MAX could autonomously locate and attach a sling cargo load and change its route if needed to avoid an obstacle. Operators also demonstrated they could control more than one aircraft at a time from the same ground control station, he said. 

The service is evaluating whether it will continue the program, McMillen said. Even if no further activities take place, Lockheed will continue to invest in developing K-MAX’s autonomous capabilities. “We see it as something that is very viable and something that we can keep pushing forward,” he said.

One option may be commercial sales, said Terry Fogarty, director of business development for Kaman Aircraft’s K-MAX helicopter programs. Kaman and Lockheed are in talks with the Federal Aviation Administration about certifying the platform for autonomous operations in the national airspace.

“We’re flying in the national airspace right now with a pilot onboard, but that whole autonomous system is already partially approved by the FAA because we have to show them our data to renew our experimental certificate every six months. So they know what software build we have in there, what our equipment is … what data links we’re using,” he said.

Some commercial companies already own manned K-MAX helicopters that are regularly in use, he said. An unmanned version could be flown to accomplish the same tasks, but would require less manpower. For example, an oil company can use it to continually fly materials to a remote area for well construction.

Lockheed and Kaman are not the only unmanned cargo aircraft manufacturers eyeing the commercial market. In May, Sikorsky announced it was building an unmanned UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, which the company intends to market to both military and non-government customers.

The aircraft will be able to hold 9,000 pounds internally or externally, and will be constructed from a UH-60A airframe retrofitted with a fly-by-wire system and then further modified with an autonomy kit, said Chris Van Buiten, Sikorsky vice president of technology and innovation.

“It’s a tremendous amount of performance at an attractive price, and it will be very interesting to see how the different markets respond,” he said.

Sikorsky flew an optionally piloted UH-60M called the manned/unmanned resupply aerial lifter, or MURAL, in demonstrations to the Army in April. Later demonstrations will pair it with an unmanned ground vehicle to investigate hazardous areas.

Those robotic vehicles are yet another platform that the military could use to tackle cargo missions. The Army and Marine Corps are hosting joint demonstrations of unmanned tactical wheeled vehicles that would remove troops from dangerous convoy missions.

William Moore, deputy to the commanding general of the Army Sustainment Center of Excellence, said he had briefed the highest echelons of Army leadership on the potential of unmanned ground vehicles. He described to Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno which technologies need be matured so that UGVs could be procured and fielded in the future, he said at a May conference.

Oshkosh Defense has spent years developing and testing an autonomy kit called TerraMax that allows a convoy of trucks to be driven by a single person located safely in the back of the line. The system has been installed on two medium tactical vehicle replacements and demonstrated under the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab’s cargo unmanned ground vehicle program.

The company is expanding TerraMax to allow vehicles to autonomously conduct road reconnaissance and clearance operations, Oshkosh announced in May. Under the contract with ONR, Oshkosh will modify TerraMax software so that vehicles outfitted with mine rollers or ground-penetrating radar can use the system, said John Beck, chief unmanned systems engineer.

“In the case of the ground-penetrating radar, if it detects a suspected target or hazard, it would stop the vehicle, it will alert the operators and the remote operator control station,” Beck said. “We would be able to …  operate that mine roller in an autonomous fashion. It obviously changes the vehicle dynamics a little bit. You need to take account for this big thing out in front of the truck when you’re navigating.”

Insurgents have adapted to the military’s use of equipment that counters improvised explosive devices, and have a variety of tactics that they can use to target convoys, said Chris Yates, of Oshkosh. For this reason, transitioning this mission to autonomous vehicles would help reduce risk to human operators.

“The whole intent of that mine roller is to blow up a mine 10 to 15 feet in front of the operator instead of right underneath,” said Yates. “That’s still a very large event, even though these vehicles are well protected and they’re designed to handle that. It’s still a very dangerous mission. It’s a very appropriate application for unmanned technology.”

Lockheed Martin and the Army’s Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center are also developing a kit that would convert large trucks into semi- or fully autonomous vehicles, said Scott Greene, Lockheed Martin’s vice president of ground vehicles. Both the Army and Marine Corps are interested in the technology.

The autonomous mobility appliqué system, or AMAS, features three levels of autonomy ranging from a warning capability — which could alert fatigued drivers when a vehicle is drifting out of its lane, for instance — to full autonomy, where a driver is not needed to operate the vehicle.

An autonomous three-vehicle convoy equipped with AMAS drove throughout a mock town erected in Fort Hood, Texas, earlier this year, Greene said.

“The convoy would navigate around vehicles that were parked there or obstacles in the road,” he said. “We had a mock pedestrian kind of run out in front of the vehicle. The vehicle stopped safely well in front of the pedestrian.”

Lockheed in June announced that AMAS had completed its second set of demonstrations, in which a convoy of six UGVs drove at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

All of the vehicles tested — one medium tactical vehicle truck, one medium tactical vehicle replacement, two palletized load system trucks, two M915 line-haul tractors and one heavy equipment transport — operated autonomously.

In its recent demonstrations, Lockheed equipped the first truck in the convoy with light detecting and ranging sensors that paint a 3-D model of the environment, Greene said. The remaining vehicles are outfitted with less complex sensors that allow them to follow the lead truck and maintain a safe distance from others in the convoy.

The company was only required to equip the first truck with the more sophisticated LIDAR. However, in the event of an IED blast that destroys or damages the first vehicle, the convoy would stop and remain stalled unless another vehicle was furnished with the more advanced sensor package, Greene said.

The company will conduct further safety testing on the system in June, said David Simon, the company’s AMAS program manager. “The program will execute a six-week operational demonstration in the July-August timeframe, during which time soldiers and Marines will assess the system benefits in realistic convoy operations.”

Credit: A helicopter attempts to land during an autonomous aerial cargo/utility system prototype demonstration. (Navy photo)
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