The US Navy is soliciting bids for the Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System (AACUS), an unmanned vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) programme designed for autonomous cargo resupply to isolated units.
The Office of Naval Research (ONR) is executing the programme on behalf of the US Marine Corps, which routinely deploys small units in isolated parts of Afghanistan. Its standard practice is to resupply such units by road convoys, which are vulnerable to ambush.
The goal of AACUS, according to programme manager Mary Cummings, is to build a sensor and processing package that will allow the aircraft to safely select its own route and landing point without input from a human operator.
Current technologies, including the unmanned Lockheed Martin/Kaman K-Max recently deployed to Afghanistan, are reliant on human operators to assign flight paths and land the helicopter remotely. Such activities require highly trained personnel and sophisticated equipment at both origin and destination.
The unmanned K-Max is "the first baby step towards autonomous helicopters," said Cummings. AACUS, in contrast, will require only the location of the unit to be resupplied, and will choose its own routes and landing sites.
Despite advances in autonomous technology, the fusion of complementary sensors required to ensure safe operations under suboptimal conditions is lacking. "There hasn't been anyone yet that can do it quickly and potentially environmentally unfriendly terrain, forget hostile terrain," said Cummings.
Bidders must integrate their chosen sensor package on two aircraft with unique flight control systems. Neither the sensors nor platforms nor computing mechanisms are fully described, allowing bidders a wide range of options.
Bids are due by 28 February, and awards will be given to two teams in April. The first flight demonstration is expected in fiscal year 2014.