As if there were any doubts that the future of aviation doesn't involve humans at the controls, Boeing's Unmanned Little Bird is the first helicopter to take off and land autonomously, choosing a safe landing site using an on-board laser LIDAR — a combination of light and radar — scanner.
Companies like Lockheed Martin have been developing autonomous choppers for some time now, but they're strictly designed for military operations involving dropping and picking up cargo in hazardous areas without landing. Little Bird, on the other hand, was developed by Boeing, Carnegie Mellon University and Piasecki Aircraft to scan the terrain as it flies, identifying areas where it can come in for a landing safely.
This might seem trivial as helicopters can hover and land on a dime, but larger choppers ideally need a fairly large and clear area as they approach and eventually come in for landing. So Little Bird's software and optics are constantly on the hunt for a flat place to land that isn't surrounded by obstacles.
The obvious benefit for autonomous vehicles in the military is that they don't put human pilots' lives at risk. But an autonomous helicopter that can theoretically fly all day and night without tiring is a great solution for rescue operations, and even hauling cargo. [IEEE Spectrum]