New US Navy technology can turn helicopters into drones

(Credit: US Navy)US Navy drone helicopter.

The US Navy has developed a 45 kilogram sensor and software pack that can turn any helicopter into a virtually autonomous drone able to fly with minimal input from its pilot. The package was designed for the US Marine Corps.

A helicopter with this pack was tested at the Naval Research Laboratory by Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, chief of Naval Research.  He said the sensor and software pack is "truly leap-ahead technology" that will let a Marine with no flight experience issue landing instructions to a cargo helicopter using a tablet computer after only a few minutes of training.

The system had been tested on three different types of helicopters. Two different prototypes of the technology module are being developed, one by Lockheed Martin and the other by Aurora Flight Sciences.

Klunder said the aim of the project is to give troops a simple tool for battlefield resupply. Doing so will reduce the casualties that result from using ground convoys to deliver weapons, food and water.

US Army data from 2003 to 2007 showed that one person was killed or wounded for every 24 fuel resupply convoys in Afghanistan while one was killed or wounded for every 29 water resupply convoys.

Brigadier General Kevin Killea, head of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, said the new system can be instructed to land a helicopter at an unprepared landing site. The system will figure out the details on its own using its sensors, including electro-optical, infrared and light detection and ranging or LIDAR.

"It's taking unmanned aerial systems to the next level by introducing autonomy, and autonomy that works," Killea said.

The tablet computer interface has a topographical map overlay and buttons around the sides that allow the user to issue instructions or communicate with the craft. The pilot gives the helicopter permission to land or create no-fly zones to tell the chopper to avoid danger areas. Otherwise, the craft navigates on its own.

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