Marines May Soon Summon Robotic Copters with an App
The unmanned K-MAX helicopter, shown here, was a first step toward autonomous flying. The U.S. military will develop helicopters with even more independent decision-making abilities.
CREDIT: Lockheed Martin
The U.S. Office of Naval Research is working on autonomous, robotic helicopters that Marines could order in minutes, using an app on a device such as an iPad or Android tablet. The choppers should be able to launch from land or water, fly to their destinations, then land on any terrain, in any weather—all without help from a human controller.
"I would very much like to see that vision of a field personnel, like the medic, be able to call the helicopter for resupply," said Mary Cummings, a scientist at the Office for Naval Research who manages the office's autonomous aerial cargo-delivery program. The obstacle-sensing, decision-making system should work in different aircraft, so that soldiers can order one of several different helicopters to fly to them in the field.
The military has long been interested in unmanned helicopters for cargo drops. Unmanned Kaman K-MAX helicopters have already flown 20 missions in Afghanistan over the past month, dropping off field rations and spare parts, the Associated Press reported on Jan. 7. They've saved troops from the dangerous job of delivering supplies in convoys and they cost several times less to operate per hour than conventionally piloted helicopters, according to the AP. (Though a congressional report worried that drones' sophisticated sensors might make them expensive to replace if many are damaged or lost.)
The K-MAX machines still need trained operators to plan their flights, however. Such planning is labor-intensive and sometimes humans don't produce the best plans because it's difficult to keep all the variables in mind, Cummings told InnovationNewsDaily. "These are tedious tasks," she said. "We have more important jobs for helicopter pilots that have to fly in more dynamic settings."
The Office of Naval Research will first focus on getting the self-flying robots to deliver supplies, but hope eventually that robotic helicopters can carry critically wounded people to a trauma center. The overall research project is slated to last for five years and cost $98 million.