A Giant Leap for Automated Flight

ONR looking to develop automated flight system that places low-level control in the hands of the aircraft

K-MAX in Afghanistan ONR’s Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System will be platform agnostic, but some of Lockheed Martin’s cutting edge automated flight technology has already been demonstrated on the K-MAX unmanned cargo helicopter currently deployed in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy DVIDS.

The U.S. Navy took an important step toward making fully automated flight a reality when it deployed the K-MAX unmanned cargo resupply helicopter developed by Lockheed Martin and Kaman Aerospace to Afghanistan last year.

Now, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) is taking a giant “leap” with a program called the Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS). ONR awarded a $13.5 million contract to a team led by Lockheed Martin to develop and demonstrate a concept called “supervised autonomy” aboard an unmanned vertical take-off and landing aircraft.

The Lockheed Martin team’s Open-Architecture Planning and Trajectory Intelligence for Managing Unmanned Systems (OPTIMUS) architecture will enable an aircraft to effectively control itself, on a primary level, while a human maintains higher level control.  Although some of the technology has been demonstrated on K-MAX, the OPTIMUS system is designed to be platform-agnostic.

“AACUS is the college level leap above K-MAX,” said ONR’s AACUS program officer Dr. Mary Cummings in an Oct. 3 AUVSI article. “K-MAX was a necessary first step for AACUS, but AACUS will actually take the concepts beyond K-MAX and substantially advance them…  We’re one of the most advanced autonomy program(s) right now in the research and development community.”

Under the contract, Lockheed Martin’s team will develop technology that has the potential to dramatically improve the utility and effectiveness of current unmanned vertical take-off and landing aircraft, as well as offer pilots supplemental decision aids on existing manned platforms. According to Cummings, AACUS will enable the aircraft to land in wind, weather and brown out conditions that exceed pilot capabilities. 

“This contract provides our team the opportunity to demonstrate how far we can expand the technology envelope,” said Roger Il Grande, Lockheed Martin’s director of airborne systems. “Some of our cutting edge technology has already been demonstrated on K-MAX for the Army’s Autonomous Technologies for Unmanned Air System program, and is now deployed with the Marine Corps on the aircraft in Afghanistan.”

Posted on October 9, 2012