Marine Corps Demonstrates New Autonomous Flight Technology
By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent
QUANTICO, Va. — A Marine unit operating in an isolated, austere position in a future conflict could receive vital supplies by air without endangering an aircrew under technology demonstrated Dec. 13 on Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.
The technology, developed by Aurora Flight Sciences in partnership with the Office of Naval Research (ONR), is called the Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System (AACUS) and is considered a major step ahead of existing unmanned aerial systems.
“This is more than just an unmanned helicopter. AACUS is an autonomy kit that can be placed on any rotary-wing platform and provide it with an autonomous capability,” said Walter Jones, ONR executive director.
“Imagine a Marine Corps unit deployed in a remote location, in rough terrain, needing ammunition, water, batteries or even blood,” Jones said. “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 crucial difference of AACUS compared to most unmanned aerial systems platforms is that the aircraft does not need detailed routing information or even prior information on the landing zone, ONR and Aurora officials emphasized. The autonomous systems in the aircraft, drawing on data from an array of visual and lidar sensors, plans the mission, avoid obstacles and find the best spot in the designated area to set down.
For the demonstration at the Quantico urban warfare complex, an ancient UH-1H Huey helicopter flew three cargo delivery missions autonomously, with only the initial desired landing location information provided by two enlisted Marines using a notebook size tablet and a laptop. The two Marines, Sgt. Dionte Jones and Cpl. Christopher Osterhaus, both were infantrymen with no previous training in autonomous systems. Both said it took mere hours of instruction by Aurora technicians for them to learn what to do.
Fritz Langford, the chief project engineer for Aurora, emphasized that the AACUS system was “platform agnostic” and could be scaled up or down to operate in any rotary wing aircraft. In a year of development, the system was tested in four other helicopters, he said.
Aurora officials noted that all of the sensors and mission planning systems in the aircraft were commercial, off-the-shelf products packaged together and empowered with software and algorithms specially crafted for the types of mission demonstrated.
A “safety pilot” flew in the Huey during the demonstration flights, to satisfy FAA requirements. The pilot, Jason Jewell, works for Aurora but is a MV-22 Osprey pilot in the Marine Corps Reserves and a graduate of the Navy Test Pilot School.
Jewell said his main functions during the three demo missions were to start the engine and the computer and tell the ground controller the system was set to go.
He said he was proud to be part of a program “that will save lives someday.”
Officials said the AACUS program was started in response to an urgent needs statement from Marines in the operating theaters and has been developed in close cooperation with the Marines, although the Army and others are following the program.
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.
Walsh said a system like AACUS could enable the Marines to operate in the distributed conditions considered necessary for survival in a conflict with a peer competitor, and to help the Corps learn how to use man-unmanned teaming and machine learning.
The AACUS system will be tested further in the second phase of the Sea Dragon experiments, which will focus on logistical support in a distributed environment.
Lt. Col. Dan Schmitt, of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, said the tests would begin in April at Marine Corps Combat Development Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif.