New Sensor Package Turns Any Helicopter Into Delivery Robot
Navy engineers have developed a sensor package that can turn any helicopter with a digital flight control system into an autonomous cargo delivery robot.
The system, called the autonomous aerial cargo/utility system, or AACUS, was twice tested successfully in March at Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia.
With less than half an hour of training, a 20-year-old lance corporal was able to land a full-size Aurora Flight Services little bird helicopter by simply touching a map application on a handheld tablet computer, said Chief of Naval Research Rear. Adm. Matthew Klunder.
More accurately, the Marine instructed the helicopter to set down on an unprepared landing site and the aircraft autonomously descended.
“We just said, ‘Here’s your tablet, here is how it works. With one touch of the button, we want you to land that helicopter,’” Klunder said.
With an iPad or similar device and a small ground control station located at a forward operating base, the system can autonomously deliver supplies anywhere a Marine designates on a map application, which is indistinguishable from those on smartphones, Klunder said.
The technology can be integrated into an unmanned aerial vehicle or retrofitted onto an existing manned helicopter, expanding the range and lift capacity of unmanned aircraft.
“What we’re talking about doing with a full-size helicopter — and we’ve done it — is delivering like 5,000 pounds of cargo, critical life-saving equipment” to Marines in the field, Klunder said.
The autonomy retrofit kit is suitable for use aboard utility aircraft for casualty evacuation and in humanitarian assistance operations, said Brig. Gen. Kevin Killea, vice chief of naval research and commander of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab.
Using electro-optical, forward-looking infrared, and light-detections and ranging sensors, the AACUS allows the aircraft flight computers to continuously scan the surrounding environment, Killea said. The system weighs about 100 pounds and is designed to be platform agnostic. It can be programmed to work with any aircraft that has a digital, fly-by-wire flight computer, he said. It is envisioned as an affordable retrofit kit that can be added to any helicopter in the Marine Corps inventory. Officials previously told National Defense the goal was to develop a kit that cost less than $25,000 per unit.
“It opens up myriad landing possibilities. It’s taking unmanned aerial systems to the next level by introducing autonomy that works,” Killea said.
Lockheed Martin has already retrofitted two K-MAX helicopters with autonomous flight computers. Fielded after an urgent request from the military, the Lockheed/Kaman Aerospace Corp. helicopters have been in Afghanistan for nearly two years and have delivered millions of pounds of cargo to Marines at forward operating bases in Afghanistan.
The difference is the K-Maxx requires highly trained operators that must undertake detailed planning, especially in choosing landing sites, Killea said.
K-Max is currently positively controlled from take off to landing, though it flies and lands autonomously. It also must land at a clear, prepared site. AACUS requires no prepared landing zone and can be taught “literally to anyone who understands how to use a map application,” Klunder said.
Lockheed Martin and Aurora Flight Services each developed a system that achieved the same capability in Marine Corps tests. The program’s first phase, which sought to prove that those sensor packages performed correctly, will end at the end of April.
A single system will be selected sometime in May during the second testing phase that will see the systems perform autonomous flight and landings in adverse weather and at night, and in other more advanced scenarios. The first phase cost less than $100 million, Klunder said.
The third and final phase involves testing the system on various aircraft in the Marine Corps inventory, including cargo and utility rotorcraft, he said.
The entire program is scheduled to last five years, with a finalized autonomy retrofit kit finalized in fiscal year 2018, Killea said.
“This isn’t about a specific platform. … It’s about making the technology work,” he said.
During the demonstrations, obstacles were set at certain potential landing zones. The aircraft avoided those obstacles and alerted operators of obstructions in a chosen landing zone, then chose a more suitable, unobstructed landing zone nearby. That capability itself is a leap forward in sense-and-avoid technology that UAV engineers have long sought. It also has implications for landings under circumstances where a pilot’s vision is obscured, which has been a concern in Afghanistan’s dusty environment.
Snow from one of the winter storms that blanketed Northern Virginia provided developers at Quantico with a de facto test of the system’s ability to land with a degraded view of the ground.
Test pilots oversaw the flights from the cockpit on each demonstration but never needed to touch the controls, Killea said.
The Marine Corps has been seeking technologies that can overcome degraded visual environments for years. The AACUS suite of sensors and software provides a working solution to landing without being able to clearly see the ground, Killea said.
It is possible that capability alone will be included on all Marine aircraft in the future, which would allow pilots to hand controls over to the flight computer for landing in brownout situations or snowstorms, Killea said.
The technology is one of several options the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory has studied for automating resupply and casualty evacuation missions. Convoys carrying water, ammunition and other supplies to forward operating bases in Afghanistan remain a target of opportunity for insurgents and their homemade explosives.
Automating airborne resupply to remote bases, or from ship to shore during amphibious operations is a “leap-ahead” capability, Klunder said.
Killea, said AACUS was one of the most important projects the service is currently funding. “As far as innovative projects go, I can’t think of one that is more important to the Marine Corps right now or one that shows as much promise.”
As with many unmanned technologies developed for military use, AACUS has myriad potential commercial and civil applications.
“Someday you may find someone who needs to be rescued from a mountainside and might not be able to get a manned aircraft out there but you could get one of these out there really quick,”
Klunder said. “This could be a civil technology for first responders. It could be [be used by] someone who works at Denny’s that needs a rescue at the restaurant.”