Autonomy for umanned (and manned) rotorcraft has taken a big step forward with recent demonstrations of the ability of testbed helicopters to autonomously select safe landing zones. The development is key to enabling anyone on the ground to request an unmanned resupply flight or casualty evacuation without having to know anything about how the helicopter performs or what it needs to land safely.
Two of the demos took place at Quantico, Va., under the Office of Naval Research’s (ONR) Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System (AACUS) research program. One was conducted by Aurora Flight Sciences using Boeing’s H-6U Unmanned Little Bird; the other by Lockheed Martin using an unmanned Kaman K-Max helicopter. Both were equipped with electro-optical/infrared and lidar sensors and autonomy processors that performed path and trajectory planning on board in real time.
In each demo, a field operator with minimal training used a handheld tablet to request a resupply flight and indicate a landing location on a digital map. The request was set to a “main operating base” where the ground control system loaded a mission plan on to the helicopter. Once airborne the aircraft (with safety pilot on board) switched to autonomous mode and the AACUS package took over.
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Photo by ONR