In December, Aurora Flight Sciences conducted a successful demonstration of the company's autonomous helicopter system at the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) Quantico Urban Training Center. The aircraft, developed under the Office of Naval Research's (ONR) Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS) program, was an AACUS-enabled UH-1H (AEH-1).
The UH-1, originally developed in the late 1950s and made famous by its role in the Vietnam War, was chosen by Aurora for its latest conversion to a robotic vehicle. The UH-1H, a later version of the helicopter, was built in 1977.
The AACUS program, which began in 2012, was an ONR Innovative Naval Prototype program based on the USMC’s need for an cargo-delivering UAS that could function in remote locations. During December, the AEH-1 conducted multiple flights and showcased its ability to autonomously execute re-supply missions in relevant and austere settings.
The AACUS technology itself is an aircraft-agnostic hardware and software suite that enables ground troops to request a supply delivery via helicopter from a handheld tablet. The system is simplified to the extent that it requires no advanced training to operate the system.
The AEH-1 is fitted with onboard lidar and camera sensors that enable it to detect and avoid obstacles and evaluate the landing zone. The system processes this information to perform onboard mission, route, and path planning to enable autonomous mission execution.
While previous demonstrations have showcased the system's autonomy capabilities and interactions with trained operators, this is the first demonstration in which the aircraft performed cargo and utility missions in an operationally relevant training environment with Marine interaction. As part of the demonstration, Marines loaded supplies for the aircraft before clearing the autonomy system for autonomous takeoff.
"The Marines' vision for the future of vertical lift operation and support is optionally piloted aircraft," said AACUS Program Manager Stephen Chisarik. "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."
"We've developed this capability ahead of requirements and it's up to us to determine how to use it," said Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, Commanding General, USMC Combat Development Command. "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."
Aurora has developed multiple technologies under the AACUS program: the digital flight control system that enables the UH-1 to fly autonomously; and the Tactical Autonomous Aerial Logistics System (TALOS) autonomy technology.
Initially, the AEH-1 was certified under FAA Order 8130.2, which covered "inhabited" experimental aircraft such as home-built and other developmental aircraft. The AEH-1 was granted a Special Airworthiness Certificate by the FAA in October, allowing the aircraft to operate autonomous with only a safety pilot onboard to monitor the controls.
The latest certification under FAA Order 8130.34 permits Optionally Piloted Aircraft (OPA) operation with only a Safety Pilot required to monitor the controls. "The Special Airworthiness Certificate is a significant validation of the program's capabilities by the FAA," said John Langford, Aurora Chairman and CEO. "The OPA technology enhances the UH-1H system and will expand the operational capability of the mission in the field."
The UH-1H is not the first manned aircraft Aurora has converted to robotic-controlled or OPA operation. Other conversions include a Diamond DA42 and a Cessna C208 Caravan through the DARPA Aircrew Labor In-cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program.
These recent flights by the AEH-1 have served as the final demonstration to ONR, U.S. Department of Defense representatives, and other senior officials the program has reached the culmination of a highly successful five-year AACUS INP program. Having completed the third and final phase of the program, AACUS will now transition to the USMC for experimentation and potential acquisition.
In the meantime, Aurora will continue development of the Orion Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) under a U.S. Air Force contract.
Orion is a twin-engine, high-performance UAS that can stay aloft over 100 hours at a time with payloads in excess of 1000 lb. Development of the Orion began in 2006 with its first flight in August of 2013. In December 2014, the Orion established the current UAS world endurance record with an 80-h, 2-min, 52-s flight.
The $48 million Orion UAS contract, awarded in early January 2018, funds the development of a certified version of Orion that will be suitable for deployment anywhere in the world. The work will be performed in Columbus, MS, and Manassas, VA.
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