The helicopter, filmed during testing by the Naval Research
Laboratory, was piloted by a 100-pound (45-kg) sensor and software
package that officials said can turn any rotary-winged aircraft into
a virtually autonomous drone able to fly with minimal input from the
Marine Corps troops it was designed to serve.
Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, chief of Naval Research, said the
sensor and software pack is "truly leap-ahead technology" that will
let a Marine with no flight experience issue landing instructions to
a cargo helicopter via tablet computer after just a few minutes of
Klunder, who will preview the technology for industry and military
leaders at a conference in Washington on Tuesday, said the aim of
the project was to give troops a simple tool for battlefield
resupply, reducing the casualties inherent in using ground convoys
to deliver food, water and weapons.
An Army study of data from 2003 to 2007 showed that one person was
killed or wounded for every 24 fuel resupply convoys in Afghanistan
and one was killed or wounded for every 29 water resupply convoys.
Marines have used another unmanned cargo helicopter system, K-MAX,
to shift millions of pounds of food, water and other gear in
Afghanistan. But officials said K-MAX requires detailed planning,
preparation of the landing site and a highly trained operator who
controls the flight from beginning to end.
Brigadier General Kevin Killea, the head of the Marine Corps
Warfighting Laboratory, said the new system can be instructed to
touch down at an unprepared landing site and will figure out the
details on its own using its sensors, including electro-optical,
infrared and light detection and ranging, or LIDAR.
"It's taking unmanned aerial systems to the next level by
introducing autonomy, and autonomy that works," Killea told
"In order to do that," he added, "you have to solve the problem of
degraded visual environments," such as those caused by blowing snow
"This technology has to solve that problem in order for it to work,"
Killea said. "You can't have an 80 percent solution with an
autonomous system going into an unprepared site. It's got to have it
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The tablet computer interface has a topographical map overlay and
buttons around the sides that allow the user to issue instructions
or communicate with the craft, giving it permission to land or
creating no-fly zones to tell the chopper to avoid danger areas.
Otherwise the craft navigates on its own.
Officials said the system had been tested on three different types
of helicopters so far. Two different prototypes of the technology
module are being developed, one by Lockheed Martin and the other by
Aurora Flight Sciences.
The project is funded for another four years, so researchers hope to
use that time to expand the technology's autonomous capabilities.
"Right now, ... the way we have this set up, it's asking for
permission to land. I want it to ... eventually tell the Marine,
'This is where I'm landing and unless you don't like that, leave me
alone,'" said Max Snell, the program manager for the project.
Klunder said if an emergency arose, researchers could have the
system ready to field within a year or two.
"If that need was there and required," he said, "the technology is
what's important and we've proved that it works."
(Reporting by David Alexander; editing by Mohammad Zargham)
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