Unmanned Helos Go Where Warfighters Need Not
Technology is coming down to the wire-or actually, the wireless-instead, with development underway on the Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS). It is a package of sensors and control technology, not a robotic helicopter platform, and it's being designed to fit existing aircraft and new systems to come. According to Technology Editor George I. Seffers in his article, "Robocopters Reduce Resupply Risk" in this issue of SIGNAL Magazine, AACUS will fit any vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft in the military fleet, giving autonomy even to decades-old aircraft such as the CH-47 Chinook or CH-53 Sea Stallion. AACUS consists of a package of sensors and control technology, not a robotic helicopter platform, according to Mary Cummings, AACUS program manager, U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR):
It's fully platform-agnostic. It should be able to be mounted across VTOL platforms. And we're hoping the system will be portable, meaning you could take it off one aircraft with little or no fanfare and attach it to another aircraft.
When U.S. Marines come under enemy fire, for example, they may be able to use a tablet or smartphone to call for ammunition, supplies, or air casualty evacuation by an autonomous helicopter smart enough to avoid hostile forces and safely land itself. ONR officials stress that Marines need an alternate means of providing time-sensitive logistics support to greatly dispersed locations. A bloody history of resupply and casualty evacuation missions has highlighted the need for a smart, unmanned rotorcraft to do the job, Cummings contends:
AACUS is necessary because there is a need to get soldiers off the convoy route that makes resupply dangerous. If we didn't have problems with convoy resupply and casualty evacuation operations in hostile terrain, perhaps the need would not be so high.
The $98 million AACUS program began in fiscal year 2012 and expects to hold its first field demonstration in 2014. Although the U.S. military has made recent strides in cargo delivery with unmanned aircraft such as the Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1, AACUS will still be a leap-ahead capability. Fixed-wing aircraft applications also are possible, but at this time, the AACUS focus is on internal load carrying. The program is scheduled to end in 2017, but some derivative technologies could spin off earlier. Landing obstacle detection technology could be transitioned to manned helicopters in the next two to three years, but do the ONR and participating contractors have the capability to meet this time frame? Share your opinions and suggestions here.