The introduction of drones has, in many ways, changed the face of warfare.  Between long duration loitering, reconnaissance and even direct fire support, drones have already proven their value on the battlefield. It seems likely that, in the years to come, we’ll only see more autonomous aircraft in the skies above our war fighters.

However, one of the most significant hurdles drone developers need to overcome is the inherent complexity of developing both the command and control functions of an autonomous aircraft and new air platforms to house that marriage of hardware and software.  The result has been some incredible flying machines, but is it truly that cost-effective to reinvent the wheel, when the U.S. military already has thousands of combat-ready aircraft sitting on runways all over the world?

Enter the Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System (AACUS) from Aurora Flight Sciences.  This suite of hardware can be installed in any of the three primary Marine Corps rotary wing aircraft, the CH-53E Super Stallion heavy transport helicopter, the AH-1Z Cobra attack helicopter, and the UH-1Y utility/light attack helicopter, and once installed, the helicopters become fully capable of autonomous, unmanned flight.

This is more than just an unmanned helicopter,” said Walter Jones, executive director at the Office of Naval Research. “AACUS is an autonomy kit that can be placed on any rotary-wing platform and provide it with an autonomous capability. Imagine a Marine Corps unit deployed in a remote location, in rough terrain, needing ammunition, water, batteries or even blood.”