Marine Corps Tests Out a Completely Autonomous Helicopter

Saturday, 16 December 2017 - 3:22PM
Technology
Saturday, 16 December 2017 - 3:22PM
Marine Corps Tests Out a Completely Autonomous Helicopter
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U.S. Navy/John F. Williams
Remotely piloting a helicopter is one thing, but simply telling a helicopter to go somewhere and watching it navigate by itself, regardless of whether you're onboard, is a completely different story. 

Which is what makes the new helicopter tech from Aurora Flight Sciences such a big deal. At a Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, they successfully rigged an old Vietnam War-era Huey helicopter to fly autonomously - it needed some minimal instructions, but it was effectively directed from a handheld tablet. 

As any helicopter pilot will tell you, these things are usually way too complicated to control from a simple tablet interface, which is because the helicopter itself is doing the heavy lifting. See the mostly-sovereign chopper in action below:



Both the hardware and software is collectively known as the Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System (AACUS), and it allowed the Huey to make three cargo shipments on the Marine base without a pilot. The only necessary supervision was the two Marines who gave it a destination and liftoff permissions, and the helicopter was off.

Part of what makes the AACUS so effective are the camera sensors and the LiDAR system added to the chopper. LiDAR (short for "light detection and ranging") is what allows the helicopter and other autonomous robots to scan their surroundings, and adjust their movements accordingly when they're about to hit rough terrain or a wall.

The key is to make sure the helicopter navigates better than a Roomba, because there'd be some major crashes if a helicopter had such clunky movements.

Stephen Chisarik, the program manager of AACUS, said the following in a press statement:

Opening quote
"The Marines' vision for the future of vertical lift operation and support is optionally-piloted aircraft. Aurora's system enables any rotary-wing aircraft to detect and react to hazards in the flight path, and make appropriate adjustments to keep the aircraft safe."
Closing quote


The AACUS was largely funded by the Office of Naval Research, and Aurora Flight Sciences will be dropping out of the tests now that the technology is up and running, letting the Marine Corps take over. The company was recently acquired by Boeing anyways, so they won't be short on things to do as Boeing continues work on their "space taxis" which could benefit from similar technology.

As for what the Marines plan to do with it, they're going to continue hooking up the technology to more modern, expensive military helicopters - but it sounds like they haven't entirely decided where it's going. The head of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, said the following in the same press statement:

Opening quote
"We've developed this great capability ahead of requirements and it's up to us to determine how to use it. 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."
Closing quote


There's a good chance they'll stick to cargo shipments for their self-driving helicopters for now. People still don't entirely trust AI or robots that much yet, and perhaps justifiably so, and it's unlikely that the military will let the things carry human personnel around.
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