Autonomous helicopter trials open new re-supply line for US Marines

US Marines may one day be re-supplied by autonomous helicopter following successful trials conducted by Aurora Flight Sciences.

AACUS-Enabled UH-1H (AEH-1)

The autonomous helicopter system has been developed by Aurora under the US Office of Naval Research’s Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS) program.

Held on December 13, 2017, at the US Marine Corps’ Urban Training Center in Quantico, Virginia, the AACUS-Enabled UH-1H (AEH-1) conducted multiple flights and demonstrated its ability to autonomously execute re-supply missions.

According to Aurora Flight Sciences, AACUS is an aircraft-agnostic hardware and software suite that gives Marines the ability to request a supply delivery via helicopter from a handheld tablet. No advanced training is required to operate the system.

The Manassas, Virginia headquartered company added that AEH-1 is fitted with onboard lidar and camera sensors that enable it to detect and avoid obstacles and evaluate the landing zone. The system processes this information to perform onboard mission, route, and path planning to enable autonomous mission execution.

Previous demonstrations have showcased the system’s autonomous capabilities and interactions with trained operators, but this is the first demonstration in which the aircraft performed cargo and utility missions in an operationally-relevant training environment with Marines.

As part of the demonstration, Marines loaded supplies for the aircraft before clearing the autonomy system for autonomous take-off.

“The Marines’ vision for the future of vertical lift operation and support is optionally-piloted aircraft,” said AACUS program manager Stephen Chisarik. “Aurora’s system enables any rotary-wing aircraft to detect and react to hazards in the flight path, and make appropriate adjustments to keep the aircraft safe.”

“We’ve developed this great capability ahead of requirements and it’s up to us to determine how to use it,” said Lt Gen Robert Walsh, commanding general, Marine Corps Combat Development Command. “The young Marines today have grown up in a tech-savvy society, which is an advantage. We’ve got to keep pushing and moving this technology forward.”

Technologies developed by Aurora for the AACUS program include the digital flight control system which enables the UH-1 to fly autonomously and the Tactical Autonomous aerial LOgistics System (TALOS) autonomy technology.

The AEH-1 was granted a Special Airworthiness Certificate by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in October, allowing the aircraft to operate autonomously with only a safety pilot onboard to monitor the controls.