Aurora Flight Sciences, which made news earlier this year when its odd-looking LightningStrike vertical takeoff/landing aircraft won a contest to become DARPA’s X-Plane demonstrator, was in the news again recently with the announcement of a plan to fit Bell UH-1H “Huey” helicopters with a system that enables them to fly autonomously. It’s the latest step in a years-long process that began when Aurora won a series of contracts to develop what the Navy and Marine Corps call the Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System. The vehicle is meant to be able to land virtually anywhere, and to do everything from resupplying troops to evacuating the injured—the same things piloted Hueys did during their long (and in some places, ongoing) service.
Aurora’s modification of the legendary helicopter, if successful, will continue to prove that autonomous aircraft don’t necessarily need to built from scratch, but can be retrofitted from current or even retired piloted aircraft.
Aurora is using the UH-1H to test its Tactical Aerial Logistics System, a modular package that could be used by other types of helicopters as well. The system is “optionally manned,” meaning that it can fly either autonomously or with pilots onboard (when the flight profile is too complex for current UAVs to handle). Autonomous is the cheaper mode: A 1999 General Accounting Office report on military pilot requirements estimated that training a pilot costs upwards of nine million dollars.
The Aurora system isn’t the first helicopter capable of autonomous flight for supply delivery. In 2011, the Marine Corps deployed a specially modified, semi-autonomous Kaman K-MAX to Afghanistan for three years (K-MAX is well known in the heavy-hauling lumber and construction industries.) The autonomous K-MAX, a joint project between Kaman and Lockheed Martin, proved that autonomous helicopters were ready for the modern battlefield, although one did crash in June 2013 due to ground operator error. As sensors and flight control systems for autonomous aircraft like the K-MAX and Aurora’s Huey get better, we’re sure to see even more autonomous helicopters, tilt-rotors, and other aircraft in combat theaters.