[Avionics Today April 10, 2014] Officials from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) announced two helicopter flight tests with unmanned flight capability that are a major step forward in the military's Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System (AACUS) program.
Using Lockheed Martin's Optimus mission system technology, the ONR team demonstrated the ability to accomplish an autonomous approach and landing in an unprepared environment. During the flight test, a Marine interfaced the mission system's handheld flight control device to complete a resupply mission, Lockheed Martin said.
In contrast to current Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), this technology will allow the aircraft to solve operational problems at landing zones, such avoiding airborne obstacles.
This is the type of technology that needs to be further developed in order to further facilitate the integration of UAS into civilian airspace for complex commercial applications. Like a lot of other aviation technology advancements, this is starting in the military environment, but it has the type of advanced concepts needed to stop the Federal Aviation Administration from shutting down UAS beer delivery operations as they recently did in Wisconsin, and focus on developing certifications for the technology that will facilitate the widespread integration of UAS into commercial airspace.
The system was able to plan, route and execute the mission without user input onboard a K-MAX unmanned helicopter. By adding a multi-layer world model and active sensor to enhance the onboard avionics system's perception and understanding for missions, Lockheed's Optimus allows UAS to complete missions with minimum interaction with a user from a ground control station.
“This is a giant leap in autonomous capabilities for our Marines,” said Chief of Naval Research Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder. “Imagine a Marine unit needing more ammunition and water where a helicopter crew would be in peril trying to fly in, either from weather or enemy fire.
“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," Klunder said.
According to Roger Il Grande, director of airborne systems programs for Lockheed Martin’s mission systems and training business, the Optimus suite of systems and sensors uses an open architecture that is positioned for Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE) compliance. That will allow mission modules to be added or removed from aircraft without costly overhauls.
ONR says the need for the capability was first discovered during Marine Corps operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, where cargo helicopters bringing fuel and other supplies to the front lines found themselves under fire or the target of roadside bombs. Optimus eliminates the risk of human loss in resupply efforts by performing a pre-programmed mission completely autonomously.
Both Lockheed Martin and ONR believe the technology can be adapted to commercial UAS applications as well. Some of those applications include forestry and construction surveillance, pipelining and firefighting missions.
“Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has discussed using drones to deliver a customer’s book order in 30 minutes,” said Klunder. “We’re talking the same concept here — the difference is, we’re bringing our customer, the Marine, 5,000 pounds of ammo and water instead.”