The U.S. Navy has unveiled a $100-million program to fund the development of newer, more autonomous helicopter drones. The program aims to further reduce the need to have a trained aviator in the loop. Unlike current unmanned systems, the new technology will be expected to solve operational problems at landing zones, such as blowing debris and unforeseen obstacles, without on-site or remote intervention from humans.
“You can’t have an 80 percent solution with an autonomous system going into an unprepared site,” said Brig. Gen. Kevin Killea, head of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory. “It’s got to have it figured out.”
The push for more automation is driven by data collected between 2003 and 2007 that revealed that one soldier was killed or wounded for every 24 fuel resupply convoys in Afghanistan, and another for every 29 water resupply missions.
Moving those supplies by air eliminates exposure to the roadside attacks that cause most casualties, while using drones frees up aviators for duties elsewhere.
The Navy and Marines want the new unmanned systems to be programmable and executable by non-pilots through the use of a simple tablet, or similar device.
“It’s taking unmanned aerial systems to the next level by introducing autonomy,” said Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, chief of Naval Research, referring to a 100-lb sensor and software system under development to replace remote pilots. “[It’s] truly leap-ahead technology.”