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.”

“With AACUS, an unmanned helicopter takes the supplies from the base, picks out the optimal route and best landing site closest to the warfighters, lands, and returns to base once the resupply is complete — all with the single touch of a hand-held tablet.”

The setup, which uses light detection and ranging (LiDAR) sensors for ranging and terrain mapping, and cameras for obstacle avoidance and route planning. It is comprised entirely of commercially available, off the shelf components, making it an extremely cost-effective rig, though the magic that makes it all function comes from the programming wizardry of Aurora Flight Sciences.

In the video below, you can see the AACUS system in action, as it controls an unmanned UH-1H “Huey” helicopter.  Even more impressive?  The rig was installed in the Huey by the Marines after receiving only a few hours of instruction from the Aurora staff, proving that the platform is not only cost-effective, but easy to use – a significant concern if it’s intended to be used in combat theaters to supplement ground forces with air support and supplies.  Its price and ease of installation means aircraft will not have to be relegated to “drone duty” but rather can be quickly switched in and out of autonomous service based on the availability of pilots and mission parameters.

In the test, the Huey, which Marines interacted with via an interconnected laptop and tablet, successfully completed three mock resupply missions to “remote” outposts and back.