Aurora Flight Sciences successfully demonstrated its Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS) with a Bell Helicopter UH-1H.
The flight test, conducted Wednesday at U.S. Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia, demonstrated the autonomous helicopter completing three resupply missions in various settings.
Aurora describes AACUS as a software and sensor package to autonomously operate in rotary-wing aircraft in and out of austere landing areas. The key here is what the company calls “cognitive autonomy,” meaning the system can determine safe landing zones, and detect and avoid obstacles — like power lines and trees — with minimal human involvement.
Though the system operates autonomously in flight, a safety pilot remains on board in case anything goes wrong and to control the engine, which is not autonomous. Aurora said the use of a safety pilot is to also allow for a rapid development and testing cycle, with the focus on autonomy, not vehicle management. A field officer is also required to operate a tablet on the ground to initiate commands to the helicopter.
The Office of Naval Research-funded program was created in response to a U.S. Marine Corps requirement for a cargo unmanned aerial system to more safely carry out resupply missions. Though the tech is under development for the Marines, other military units have shown interest, including the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy.
Test Pilot Jason Jewell discusses his experience with manning the UH-1H during its autonomous resupply mission with Aurora Flight Sciences' AACUS system.
In the demonstration’s first test mission, the AACUS-equipped aircraft operated independently through landing after an operator-initiated launch.
The second mission was similar to the first, but the Huey instead flew on a path across a portion of the site terrain that had more trees in its line of sight, demonstrating its ability to detect and avoid obstacles throughout its flight path.
In the third, the helicopter landed in the landing zone that had an obstacle in the way. In this scenario, the field operator initiated a waveoff prior to landing, after which the helicopter recalculated a different route to safely land in the landing zone, where the aircraft remained for a static display.
One of the AACUS sensors mounted on the Nose of a UH-1H.
The company envisions this technology as an “agnostic” tool that can be applied across multiple helicopter types, with potential applications in areas outside of the military in oil and gas, air medical, firefighting, agriculture and more. (The FAA has granted Aurora a special airworthiness certificate for AACUS in November.)
“This was designed as a platform-agnostic system and was designed with portability in mind,” said Aurora Flight Sciences Guidance, Navigation and Controls Engineer Fritz Langford.
With completely commercial-off-the-shelf hardware on an open architecture that allows it to be scaled up or down, the tech was designed to be easily applied across other unmanned platforms. The entire system consists of lidar-based sensors on the nose, belly and tail boom of the aircraft, in addition to the tablet-based software operated by a field officer.
Part of the AACUS system in the UH-1H Huey.
“The H1 platform that its on is merely a distractor for us from an experimental standpoint. We’re looking at everything that is possible to do, and we’re not completely bent on one function that is logistics,” said the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory’s Lt. Col. Dan Schmitt. “The sky is the limit.”
Operating the software is like calling an Uber or ordering a pizza with no specialized operational training required, explained Marine Cpl. Christopher Osterhaus, the remote flight operator during the demonstration. The system requires a remote flight operator who uses a tablet device equipped with an Android app to control and supervise the aircraft during resupply missions.
“In between five and 15 minutes, I had a great understanding of how this system worked,” said Cpl. Osterhaus. “On the tablet itself, I can specify what I want, where I want and when I want it.”
So far, Aurora has previously demonstrated the system on an unmanned Boeing AH-6 Little Bird and multiple Bell 206 variants, as well as the UH-1.
When asked whether current progress in testing the system had presented any cybersecurity issues, individuals at Aurora, the Office of Naval Research and the Marines could not comment at this stage of the system development. Such issues would be evaluated in later stages.
The demonstration was the final one within the Innovative Naval Prototype program. It will now transition to the Marine Corps for experimentation within its Sea Dragon 2025 program. That program aims to explore emerging technologies that the service can leverage against U.S. adversaries.