A K-MAX pilotless freight helicopter sits at Camp Dwyer in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, in Dec. 2011. The unmanned cargo helicopter flies missions to remote outposts above roadside bombs.
A K-MAX pilotless freight helicopter sits at Camp Dwyer in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, in Dec. 2011. The unmanned cargo helicopter flies missions to remote outposts above roadside bombs. // Justin M. Boling/AP

New Piloting System for Drone Cargo Helicopters Passes Test Flight

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.

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.

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