New Piloting System for Drone Cargo Helicopters Passes Test Flight

 A Military Police helicopter flies over the unpacified Complex Mare, one of the largest 'slum' complexes in Rio, on March 30, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
National Journal
Patrick Tucker, Defense One
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Patrick Tucker, Defense One
April 8, 2014, 1:03 p.m.

The Navy just suc­cess­fully tested two un­manned cargo heli­copter pi­lot­ing sys­tems that will make it easi­er to re­plen­ish troops with food and am­muni­tion in dan­ger­ous con­di­tions on the bat­tle­field without en­dan­ger­ing lives.

The chief of the Nav­al Re­search Of­fice, Rear Adm. Mat­thew Klun­der, said its ex­per­i­ment­al drone heli­copter pro­gram passed a crit­ic­al mile­stone. Speak­ing at the Sea-Air-Space Ex­pos­i­tion just out­side of Wash­ing­ton, D.C., on Tues­day, Klun­der de­scribed a flight test that took place last month on the grounds of the Mar­ine Corps Base in Quantico, Va.

Mar­ines armed only with a tab­let PC and 15 minutes of train­ing were able to steer and land large heli­copters, called the Autonom­ous Aer­i­al Cargo/Util­ity Sys­tem (AC­CUS), in driv­ing snow. “I stood right next to the 20-year-old lance cor­por­al. I touched the but­ton. It is lit­er­ally a one-touch app,” Klun­der told De­fense One. “Frankly, you don’t even need the app.” The app al­lows the user on the re­ceiv­ing end to change the flight path or the be­ha­vi­or of the craft on the basis of new con­di­tions.

The mil­it­ary already uses un­manned cargo heli­copters, like the K-MAX, in Afgh­anistan. This new pi­lot­ing app will make it easi­er to fly them.

The private sec­tor has been able to fly un­manned heli­copters, but for the mil­it­ary, pi­lot­ing a full-sized heli­copter cap­able of car­ry­ing large amounts of sup­plies — and do­ing so un­der gun­fire — presents a big­ger tech­nic­al obstacle than steer­ing a toy-sized drone to de­liv­er a pack­age to someone’s porch. “My friend Jeff Bezos at Amazon has said, ‘Hey, we can do small pay­loads today. I’m telling you, we have to be able to lift 5,000 pounds,” Klun­der said.

The size of the chal­lenge is evinced by the sens­ing equip­ment that’s part of the AC­CUS pro­gram, in­clud­ing elec­tro-op­tic­al, in­frared, and light emit­ting, dis­tance and ran­ging (LID­AR) sensors, as well as an op­tic­al cam­era.

Like self-driv­ing trucks, the AA­CUS pro­gram aims to re­move hu­man vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies from the sup­ply line and al­low troops in hot­spots to or­der up sup­plies with the touch of a but­ton. The sys­tem isn’t a single drone so much as a soft­ware and hard­ware pack­age that the Of­fice of Nav­al Re­search wants to even­tu­ally ap­ply to all classes of heli­copters, Klun­der said.

The AA­CUS may make its way in­to ci­vil­ian-mil­it­ary op­er­a­tions be­fore it sees any ac­tion in com­bat. Klun­der sees it as par­tic­u­larly use­ful in emer­gency or search and res­cue situ­ations where heli­copter pi­lots are asked to take big risks un­der dif­fi­cult con­di­tions. Dis­aster re­lief is a key part of the U.S. mil­it­ary mis­sion, es­pe­cially in parts of Asia and the Pa­cific.

“If you have a ter­rible tragedy here in the United States and you need to get some res­cue as­sets over [to an af­fected area] quickly, but you’re not sure what it’s like in the ter­rain and you don’t have air­crew avail­able, you send one of these,” Klun­der said.

Next month, the pro­gram will enter a second phase of test­ing, in­volving more chal­len­ging weath­er and obstacles. But Klun­der is op­tim­ist­ic after this test flight. “I think you’ve seen the res­ults. They work,” he said.

COR­REC­TION: This story has been mod­i­fied to re­flect that the Navy’s an­nounced test flight was for the heli­copters’ pi­lot­ing sys­tem. The head­line has been changed to re­flect the cor­rec­tion.

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