With 30% of U.S. warplanes now made up of drones, it’s not surprising in the least that the U.S. Navy announced a $98 million project that will develop unmanned helicopters for the Marines. But unlike other drones that still need human operators, these helicopters will be completely autonomous and can be summoned by — believe it or not — an app.
The program called Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS) is still in its infancy, and will span five years. Officials are still seeking for researchers that will develop the technology, but they have a pretty solid idea of what they want. “It’s going to be designed to work with people who have no flight experience. An operator will pick up his iPad or Android and make an emergency supply request. He’ll request that the helicopter come to him and land as close to him as possible,” says program officer Dr. Mary Cummings. The end product will be a huge step in autonomy — the helicopters will be designed to take off, plan their flights, and navigate their way with almost no input from their operators.
Once the helicopters are built, one of their immediate tasks will be to provide deployed Marines with a means to quickly get supplies and combat essentials. In the future, the U.S. Navy plans to use them for medical missions including casualty evacuations. Prior to the AACUS program, an initiative by the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory has successfully developed K-MAX — a helicopter drone prototype that was deployed to Afghanistan in December 2011. Unlike the planned AACUS helicopters, though, K-MAX carries its cargo in a slingload and is controlled and navigated by a human operator.