Monster Machines: Every US Military Helicopter Could Soon Be A Drone

The MQ-8 Fire Scout might be the US military’s marquee pilotless helicopter, but it’s not the only one. A pair of R/C Kaman K-Max K-1200 choppers have proven their value resupplying forward operating bases in Afghanistan and, now, the DoD is developing a system to turn any helicopter into a remotely operated whirly bird.

Dubbed the Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System (ACCUS), this combined hardware and software suite leverages a variety of visual sensors — Electro-Optical, infrared, LIDAR — to supplement the onboard optical camera. Like a militarised Google Shopping Express, troops can easily program the chopper’s course from a tablet-based mobile app. Learning the system reportedly takes as little as 15 minutes, as evidenced during a test flight held last month in Quantico, Va.

“I stood right next to the 20-year-old lance corporal. I touched the button. It is literally a one-touch app,” Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, chief of the Office of Naval Research, told Defence One.“Frankly, you don’t even need the app.”

Instead of putting pilots in harm’s way when delivering vital supplies to front line troops, the ACCUS system takes care of flying, including navigating treacherous weather conditions that would ground manned missions as well as avoiding incoming enemy fire.

As the ONR’s program page explains, both future and legacy helicopter platforms will be able to utilise the system:

Due to an open architecture approach for global management of mission planning data, AACUS technologies will be platform agnostic and transferrable to both new and legacy cargo unmanned aerial systems (CUASs). AACUS-enabled CUASs will rapidly respond to requests for support in all weather conditions, be launched from sea and land, fly in high/hot environments, and autonomously detect and negotiate precision landing sites in potentially hostile settings. Such missions could require significant obstacle and threat avoidance, with aggressive manoeuvring in the descent-to-land phase.

With the success as last month’s test flight, the ACCUS program now moves into its second phase of development. While there is no set timetable for when the system could potentially reach the battlefield, ONR researchers are already eying it as a means of delivering supplies to humanitarian and natural disaster areas. [ONR via Defence One]