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The Air Force wants to rescue downed pilots with an autonomous aircraft

The Air Force wants to rescue downed pilots with an autonomous aircraft


Or deliver special forces to and from the battlefield

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Image: US Air Force / Staff Sgt. Zachary Wolf

Whenever a US aircraft crashes, there’s a quick response: a rescue team is dispatched to the crash site to secure the wreckage and recover the pilot, but in some cases, that can be a dangerous proposition that puts additional personnel at risk of accident or enemy fire. The Air Force wants to avoid that — or at the very least, add a new tool to its disposal when it comes to rescuing the downed pilot. According to a solicitation from the Air Force Research Laboratory spotted by Aviation Week (via Task & Purpose), one possibility would be an autonomous aircraft that could potentially fly people away from a crash site.

The solicitation is called Personnel Recovery / Transport Vehicle, and was issued on May 2nd. It broadly sketches out what the AFRL is looking for: a small, autonomous aircraft with a range of at least 100 miles that can land and take off from a small footprint that isn’t prepared for such. At a minimum, it would carry two people — one potentially in a medical litter — and could carry up to four people along with 1,400 pounds of equipment. It has to be able to operate in all different types of terrain, with water recovery a “desired capability but not a requirement.” Finally, it should have a low “acoustic audible signature” on takeoff and landing, and could be deployed from an airplane if needed. The Air Force doesn’t specify what this type of vehicle would look like, whether it would be an autonomous helicopter, a tilt-rotor aircraft, or something else.

The goal is to put as few people in the line of fire as possible

The goal is essentially to develop a low-cost alternative relying on an autonomous system, which would allow the military to field more of these types of vehicles, and potentially reduce the amount of time that it takes to deploy and recover their targets. The document lays out that this vehicle could operate in a couple of roles — “combat search and rescue, personnel recovery, and special operations,” meaning it could be used to recover a downed pilot, or deliver or exfiltrate a special forces team to a target that might be too dangerous for a helicopter.

The Air Force specifically envisions this system working in one of two ways: like Predator or Reaper drones, flown by a remote pilot, or “through minimal control inputs by the person onboard” that wouldn’t require significant training. Push a button to go and the plane takes care of the rest. It would essentially remove the flight crew from the aircraft: fewer people to expose to risk on a mission.

Private companies are working on the “flying car” market, but that might not work for the military

It specifically cites the efforts of private companies in this field to essentially develop “flying cars.” In the last couple of years, there have been a number of efforts to develop autonomous planes that can ferry people back and forth, such as concepts and prototypes from companies like Airbus, Bell, Boeing, Ehang, Kitty Hawk, Lilium, Uber, Vertical Aerospace, Volocopter, and a bunch of others. Some of that effort and research could benefit the military.

But, as the Air Force notes, they can’t simply adopt a vehicle that’s designed for civilian use. “Many of the PAV designs have been self-limiting to an electric only solution or speed, weight, or range limited to fit into certain design categories as defined by the FAA for ease of fielding,” the solicitation states. The military models would have to be more robust in order to fit the wide range of uses that the Air Force envisions.

This solicitation is just the first step in a much longer acquisition process. Companies that answer it will have to show that they can actually build and deliver such a vehicle before actually developing and testing the vehicle. Once those steps have been accomplished, they’ll be able to move on to production, and potentially develop a model aimed at the civilian marketplace while they’re at it.