Autonomous Helicopter Technology Wins Another Major Award

The Howard Hughes Award — given by the American Helicopter Society — was presented here May 17 to the Office of Naval Research and Aurora Flight Sciences for their joint work on the Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System, or AACUS.

AACUS enables rotary-wing aircraft to fly completely autonomously even in austere environments.

“The team is honored to be recognized for our work,” said Knox Millsaps, head of Office of Naval Research’s air warfare and weapons department. “But we’ll know if our work has been a real success if it can keep even one more warfighter safe and out of harm’s way during a resupply mission — that’s our true measure of success.”

Sensors, Software Package

AACUS is a package of sensors and software that can be integrated into rotary-wing aircraft to provide safe, reliable and rapid delivery of cargo to Marines in the field using autonomous capabilities. These capabilities include flight, route planning, obstacle avoidance, landing selection — even on unprepared fields — and takeoffs.

AACUS employs an intuitive handheld tablet that allows a Marine in the field to call up needed supplies quickly and easily.

That capability was on display in December 2017 when AACUS successfully completed its final demonstration — featuring a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter — at the Urban Training Center at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia. A highlight of the demonstration included a Marine requesting an autonomous resupply after only 15 minutes of training.

Revolutionary Technology

“The AACUS technology provides a revolutionary way to resupply our forces in the field,” Millsaps said. “It could simplify the logistics train for supplying critical warfighting cargo to forward-deployed troops, and do this in a more economical manner without placing human pilots at risk in high-threat environments.”

AACUS has won and been nominated for other high-profile awards as well. In addition to receiving the Howard Hughes Award, the technology was a finalist for the recent National Aeronautic Association’s 2017 Robert J. Collier Trophy.

And earlier this month, the program received the Xcellence Award in the category of “Detect and Avoid” from the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International.

AACUS was developed under an Office of Naval Research innovative naval prototype program in partnership with technology company Aurora Flight Sciences. The program is now with the Marine Corps for further experimentation and development.