Navy Unveils New Remote Pilot Program for Real Helicopters

I have something exciting to announce.  And this…this is big.

The military is doing something so amazing that I almost didn’t believe it at first.  It’s so innovative, so exciting, and frankly so tangible and operational that it could actually, seriously, work.  Scratch that.  It DOES work.  I know because I’ve seen it, and it’s going to change the way we think of operational warfare forever.

Are you ready for this?

The Navy has unveiled their plans for the Autonomous Aerial Cargo and Utility System, known as AACUS.  The AACUS is a system they have devised that allows them to fly their full-sized helicopters remotely…using a tablet.

No.  Really.

“Just in the last month – down in Quantico, Virginia – twice, we’ve had some really impressive demonstrations,” said Navy Rear Adm. Matthew L. Klunder, chief of naval research, during a recent roundtable conference at the Pentagon.  “We’ve taken a young Marine, I’m talking twenty years old – one case a lance corporal, one case a sergeant – and no kidding, with one touch of a mini-tablet in their hand, they’ve been able to autonomously land a full-sized helicopter onto an unprepared landing site.”

Hard to believe, right?  Well, see for yourself.  This was the video the Office of Naval Research released of their demo:

Yeah.  I know, right?  This is something approximating a real-life dream come true.   And get this: the AACUS is designed with ease in mind.  That is, this isn’t going to take years of flight school to operate.  This is going to take, like, smart phone operator knowledge.

“Oh, by the way,” Rear Adm. Klunder added, referencing the video, “that Marine, that same Marine?  Thirty minutes of training.  We just said ‘Here’s the tablet; here’s how it works; with one touch of your button, why don’t you land that helicopter?’  He did it twice.”

He also did it with slightly adverse conditions due to the snow on the ground and the inclement weather.  Now, before you go all “Argh!  That was so risky!” you need to know that the Navy took precautions.  They had test pilots in the cockpits in case something went wrong (though nothing thankfully did), but no one was flying the controls except the guy with the tablet.

Klunder says this system is one that could be put on an unmanned drone, or it could be put on a manned helicopter; it doesn’t matter.  It’s easily installed, easily used and easily learned.  Which is pretty incredible.  I have Ikea furniture that’s more complicated than that.

 

This is an example of the Amazon Prime Air drone. The goal of this new delivery system is to get packages into customers' hands in 30 minutes or less using unmanned aerial vehicles. (Amazon.com photo)

This is an example of the Amazon Prime Air drone. The goal of this new delivery system is to get packages into customers’ hands in 30 minutes or less using unmanned aerial vehicles. (Amazon.com photo)

Now, autonomous vehicle transportation and delivery concepts are nothing new.  Just a few months ago Amazon’s Jeff Bezos rolled out his idea to deliver packages using drones, as you might recall.  I’d say the results of that were a mix between technological excitement and logistical hesitancy, with a few people hoping to shoot the Amazon drones out of the sky (still not okay, by the way).

And that was just to deliver small packages with a quadcopter.

What the Navy is talking about – and has already done – is delivering five THOUSAND pounds of cargo using a full-sized, autonomously-operated helicopter.  Cargo like lifesaving equipment.  Critical medical supplies.  Weapons systems.

“You name it,” Klunder said.  “The load would be delivered, and very safely, to our sailors and Marines.”

Beyond that, he says, this system has applications in the civil sector, like for first responders.

“If you look at the truly leap-ahead technology, with one touch of a tablet” he said, “you’re talking about a very affordable system that could be fitted onto any helicopter.”

This could mean big things for the warfighter, not the least of all the infantry and boots-on-the-ground troops, where time and resources are often precious.

“As far as innovation projects go, I can’t think of one that’s more important to the Marine Corps now, that shows as much promise, as this does,” said Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Killea, Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory commanding general and vice chief of naval research.

We have been operating unmanned aerial systems in Afghanistan for a while, Gen. Killea pointed out, but the difference is the fact that this system, the AACUS, could be used by anyone.  With 15-20 minutes of training, they could have helicopters in the air and cargo en route to its destination.  Think about that.

“What you have right now in Afghanistan are highly trained operators who have to do detailed planning, especially with the landing sites,” Killea explains.  Conversely, this system is designed to be used by anyone, and, perhaps more importantly, to land anywhere.

“What that does for you is it opens up a myriad of landing possibilities and operating environments, as opposed to the detailed planning that you would have to go through today with cargo UAS,” Gen. Killea said.

This system is important to the Marine Corps, he says, for these two reasons:

  1. It takes unmanned aerial systems to the next level by introducing autonomy (and autonomy that works).
  2. It takes the problem of degraded visual environments off the table.

For example, in the video above, the Marine landed the helicopter in the snow, some of which was kicked up a bit.  Imagine if that were heavier snow, imagine that being sand, imagine that being battlefield obscurance like smoke.

The kicker here is that, in spite of these kinds of variables, the AACUS could land because the operator wouldn’t have to be visually affected by all of that.

Today’s pilots are challenged with degraded visual environments, Gen. Killea points out, especially at night.  The AACUS could be the solution to that.

“This technology has to solve that problem in order for it to work,” he said.  “You can’t have an eighty percent solution with an autonomous system going into an unprepared site.  You gotta have it figured out.”

Arguably, the most impressive feat of the AACUS, aside from the success of it, is how easily, and generally, it could be used.

“It’s not about the individual platform here.  It’s the fact that that technology is platform agnostic.”

There are also applications for this in humanitarian assistance missions, especially in a place where the geography, or the environment, isn’t so friendly.  It can be placed on anything that’s digital fly-by-wire, Killea said.  That platform could be manned; it could be unmanned.

The military could even take it a step further.

“Ultimately there’s no reason why this technology couldn’t get to the point where you could have unmanned MV-22s or unmanned CH53’s that you’re supporting,” Gen. Killea said.

Photo: The Autonomous Aerial Cargo and Utility System could allow service members to remotely fly medical supplies, equipment, even injured troops to and from locations on the battlefield using aircraft like this Sikorsky UH-53 helicopter preparing to lift off from Camp Bastion in Helmand province, Afghanistan. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Mark O'Donald/Released)

The Autonomous Aerial Cargo and Utility System could allow service members to remotely fly medical supplies, equipment, even injured troops to and from locations on the battlefield using aircraft like this Sikorsky UH-53 helicopter preparing to lift off from Camp Bastion in Helmand province, Afghanistan. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Mark O’Donald/Released)

The ability to operate in more austere environments with unmanned aerial systems enhances that capability,” Killea said.  “We could easily see this going to a utility version as well.  I don’t see any reason why this couldn’t be a future casualty evacuation platform.  It makes complete sense.”

The system works using LIDAR, which is a remote sensing technology that measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser and analyzing the reflected light. It’s basically the combination of the word “light” and “radar”, which is why it is able to operate in extreme environments and can work from safe distances.

“Lidar is not new,” Gen. Killea pointed out, “but it’s the algorithms behind this that are able to feed into the processors and the systems to say ‘Do this; don’t go there, go here.’”

So when can we expect to see the AACUS in full battle-ready operation?  The timetable for implementation, according to the experts, is within the next couple of phases over the next few years.  Right now, they’re at the “prove this works” phase, so to speak.  Now they want to challenge the conditions a bit more.  See how far, and how hard, they can push the system, before they roll the AACUS onto the battlefield.

You can be sure that when they do, it’s going to be a rough, tough, autonomous piloting machine.  One that will, I’m almost certain, change the way our warfighters fly through strategic environments.

Forever.

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed with Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for science and technology in the military.

Follow Armed with Science on Facebook and Twitter!

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