Aurora Flight Sciences, an aviation and aeronautics research company, recently demonstrated a fully autonomous military helicopter that can be controlled remotely with just a tablet. During a demonstration at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia, an old UH-1H Huey helicopter flew three missions to deliver cargo without a pilot on the controls and with two infantrymen providing minimal instructions from a small hand-held tablet and a laptop.
The helicopter was fitted with onboard LIDAR and camera sensors that enabled it to detect and avoid obstacles and evaluate the landing zone, Aurora said. Unlike standard unmanned aircraft operations, in which a ground operator provides detailed flight directions to the aircraft, Aurora’s system only received destination information and liftoff permission from the two Marines.
The system then did the mission planning itself, charting the best route to the destination, avoiding obstacles and no-fly areas, and picking the best landing spot near the troops. And it’s designed to be “aircraft-agnostic,” meaning it will work with other vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicles, not just military helicopters.
“We’ve developed this great capability ahead of requirements and it’s up to us to determine how to use it,” said Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, commanding general of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, in a statement. “The young marines today have grown up in a tech-savvy society, which is an advantage. We’ve got to keep pushing and moving this technology forward.”
Aurora was recently acquired by aerospace giant Boeing. The Virginia-based company has also emerged as a crucial linchpin in Uber’s ambitious plan to develop a network of on-demand, electrically powered VTOL aircraft. Five aircraft manufacturers, including Aurora, announced their support of Uber’s plan during a conference in Dallas earlier this year. The aircraft featured in a video by Uber about its on-demand aviation idea is an electric VTOL concept developed by Aurora.