Back to the Future
US Marines Test Autonomous Helicopter
By Dan Sweet
On a cold, brisk December day, the sound of a Bell UH-1H Huey helicopter filled the sky over Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. While the sound of the venerable 70s-era helicopter is routine around a military installation, the flight itself was a glimpse into the future of rotary-wing aircraft.
Taking part in a demonstration before the media and US Department of Defense officials, the autonomous helicopter flew three “missions” without any direction from the pilot, who was aboard only as a safety measure. While the military currently envisions using the autonomously operated aircraft for logistics-related missions in combat theaters, it is likely that commercial applications will follow.
The Future of Helicopters
Aurora Flight Sciences, working with the US Marine Corps and the Office of Naval Research (ONR), touted the demonstration flight as an example of its new Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System (AACUS), which the company asserts will make any helicopter completely autonomous. The Manassas, Virginia–based company has been a leader in engineering products for the rapidly developing unmanned aircraft systems market.
The Marine Corps and Aurora Flight Sciences initially envision the autonomous helicopters working to support troops in the battlefield requiring resupply, and the three demonstration flights were designed to test that scenario. This resupply structure would free manned aircraft to support combat missions or other flights where human decision-making elements remain necessary.
“This is more than just an unmanned helicopter,” said Dr. Walter Jones, ONR executive director, addressing the group gathered for the demonstration. “AACUS is an autonomy kit that can be placed on any rotary-wing platform and provide it with an autonomous capability. Imagine a Marine Corps unit deployed in a remote location, in rough terrain, needing ammunition, water, batteries, or even blood.
“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,” said Jones.
The Marines are also looking forward to adapting this emerging technology with their equally advanced personnel in mind. “We’ve developed this great capability ahead of requirements, and it’s up to us to determine how to use it,” Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, commanding general, Marine Corps Combat Development Command, told the crowd. “The young marines today have grown up in a tech-savvy society, which is an advantage. We’ve got to keep pushing and moving this technology forward.”
Optional Equipment: The Pilot
Aurora Flight Sciences envisions that some of the autonomous aircraft would carry a pilot. This would allow the Marines or other users to expand the mission envelope as required. For example, the pilot could disengage the system to redirect supplies where they are more urgently needed, or switch to a search-and-rescue mission, should the need arise.
“AACUS gives revolutionary capability to our fleet and force,” says Dennis Baker, AACUS program manager. “It can be used as a pilot aid to operate in GPS- and communications-denied arenas, or allow fully autonomous flights in contested environments, keeping our pilots and crews out of harm’s way.”
Aurora Flight Sciences equipped the helicopter with a variety of laser-guided LiDAR sensors and cameras running from nose to tail. At this stage of development, the electronics package required for communications, guidance, and flight operations is roughly the size of a large suitcase, although spokesmen for Aurora Flight Sciences project a smaller final version. According to the presentation at the demonstration, sensor size, weight, and capability can be scaled to match aircraft size and speed.
Once it is ready for its mission, the AACUS-equipped helicopter is capable of planning and following its own flight path to the designated landing zone (LZ), correcting to avoid obstacles such as other aircraft, towers, wires, and objects within the LZ.
The safety pilot onboard the autonomous aircraft for the demonstration flights was Jason Jewell, project test pilot for Aurora Flight Services. At this point in the technology, the pilot is still required to participate in the flight and mission. “First, I start the computer and leave it running for the day,” says Jewell. “For each mission, I coordinate with the ground operator. He sends the mission, and he tells me when he’s happy with the route and ready to launch.
“I then throttle the aircraft up to full RPM. Then I arm the AACUS system and engage it,” continues Jewell. “It’s a two-step process, so there’s no question as to whether it’s engaged or not. Then I get back on the radio to let the controller know that he’s clear to launch. He presses the launch command, and at that point the aircraft is off. I don’t have to touch the flight controls except when the aircraft is on the ground.”
The Demonstration Flights
According to Aurora Flight Sciences, after a short training course, anyone can use an app on any hand-held device to order needed supplies and then direct the helicopter to fly to their position. For the demonstrations, Aurora Flight Sciences provided Marine Sgt. Dionte Jones with 15 to 30 minutes of training on the app. Using a small tablet computer, Jones then called for the aircraft from a point several miles away, ordering it to make three supply runs to different locations before landing it in an LZ located among several buildings.
In a real-world scenario, logistic coordinators at a staging area would conduct the load calculations of the resupply helicopter, factoring in the altitude temperature and lifting capacity of the aircraft. Crews would then load the supplies onto the aircraft, or into sling loads, making sure they met the center-of-gravity requirements for the helicopter.
During a span of about an hour, the autonomous Huey flew the three resupply missions under different scenarios, including one where marines specifically left a cargo container in the middle of the LZ. As the helicopter approached the LZ, it detected the obstacle and adjusted its landing site accordingly. The marine controlling the app can also “wave-off” the helicopter if required.
AACUS can also recognize and adjust for unsafe landing sites such as sloped terrain, mud, or water. The aircraft will continue to search for a suitable landing point, up to limits established by the controller. “That’s something we get to define,” adds Jewell. “For today’s demonstration, we established a 50-meter radius. So if it (AACUS) can find enough space in that 50-meter radius to put the helicopter in, it will.
“One of the unique things about this is that you can send the aircraft to land anywhere, and bring the survey capability with you,” says Jewell. “Some systems require a surveyed landing point or runway, and that’s not the case with our system. You can give it the grid coordinate, and it will bring the survey capability with it to find the safest spot to land.
“If you were to put the landing point in the middle of the forest and it was all trees, it would wave off” continues Jewell. “It would do that a number of times and then say ‘This is an impossible landing zone’ and then move onto the next landing zone.”
Although the platform for the demonstration was a Bell product, future demonstration flights may include helicopters from Boeing, which acquired Aurora Flight Sciences in late 2017 as part of a plan to increase Boeing’s presence in the field of unmanned aircraft. Previously, Aurora Flight Sciences had partnered with Boeing on other commercial and military projects.
“The combined strength and innovation of our teams will advance the development of autonomy for our commercial and military systems,” said Greg Hyslop, chief technology officer and senior vice president of Boeing Engineering, Test and Technology, in an October press release from Boeing. “Together, these talented teams will open new markets with transformational technologies.”
While the demonstration flights focused on military applications, Aurora Flight Sciences foresees the technology moving into the civil helicopter market. Since the day’s discussions centered on logistic support, examples for the civil market included support of offshore or onshore petroleum sites and firefighting. Some witnesses of the demonstration also speculated about adapting the technology to eventually carry passengers who would control the flight using a similar app.
The Future for Pilots
Is this the end of the career path for helicopter pilots? Jewell wasn’t ready to write off his profession. “I would still recommend this profession because I don’t see this as a zero-sum game. I see this more as a tool in a toolbox that we’re going to use for some dull, dirty, or dangerous missions. This would mean the trained pilots wouldn’t have to use their considerable skills for routine missions or put their lives at risk.”
Jewell, who is a Marine Reserve Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey pilot and a Naval Test Pilot School graduate, also elaborated on safety. “In my side gig with the Marine Reserves, I fly the V-22, and we sometimes have hard landings. Why do we have hard landings? Because it’s difficult to land in the dust at night. If an aviator has something that will help him do that safely, he’ll take advantage of it.
“What you saw today is a Vietnam-era aircraft with cutting-edge autopilot and pathfinding technology on it,” finishes Jewell. “It’s great to work on a program that I think will save lives someday when it makes it to the battlefield.”
Dan Sweet is HAI’s director of public relations and communications. Dan can be reached at email@example.com.