Imagine this: a marine squad is pinned down in a valley in Afghanistan, running low on ammo and surrounded by Taliban. A manned helicopter would risk even more lives, but instead, a drone copter hovers in overheard, drops a few crates of ammo, and the marines are able to shoot their way out and return to the Forward Operating Base-- all with the touch of a button on a smartphone.
That is the vision for the next generation of drone controls on the growing vertical takeoff unmanned fleet, led by the K-Max (pictured below). And if a few enterprising marines can get the technology right, it will be a reality within a few years.
Just a month ago, marines flew their first drone helicopter resupply flights with the K-Max drone. As an overview of the K-Max, Wired writes that:
"The Marines’ K-MAX is a pilotless version of a popular twin-rotor helicopter. The GPS-guided robo-K-MAX weighs in at just 2.5 tons, but can carry 3.5 tons of cargo some 250 miles. The K-MAX beat out Boeing’s smaller A160 Hummingbird unmanned helicopter for the Marine Corps demonstration contract. And the Marines, Army, Navy and Air Force are all considering buying robot supply aircraft in large quantities."
So now the Marines are working on a next generation of drone-copters with a new update that would make Steve Jobs proud: touch-screen, smartphone controls.
The vision is that a single U.S. Marine or other serviceman will be able to call in resupply and even med-evac drones with the iPhone he or she carries in a pocket. This would revolutionize the modern battlefield, allowing an increased rate of resupply with no risk to human pilots.
Called the Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS), it will allow resupply in harsh or dangerous climates in the dead of night without possibility of human error.
It's a military program designed to save lives, and dollars, at the same time. Much of this hinges on the ability to control the newly developed rotor UAV fleet and upgrade their onboard technologies. This new synching of controls and onboard electronics, according to Wired, will be:
"the brains of many models of robot. The idea is to produce a set of sensors, software, computers and controls that can be installed aboard almost any Vertical-Take-Off-and-Landing aircraft, including helicopters and potentially tiltrotors or even ducted-fan vehicles."
Here is a video of the K-Max during a test flight, showing off some of its capabilities, courtesy of Kaman:
Former Navy F/A-18 jet fighter pilot and Director of the AACUS program Missy Cummings told Wired two years ago that its undergirding philosophy is that:
“humans have important jobs they need to do, and should not worry about low-level housekeeping, telling a UAV to go from point to point,” she told Danger Room. “UAVs are smart, and can do that on their own these days....We want to show that we can plug-and-play across different rotorcraft and VTOL aircraft and get some level of guaranteed performance.”
If it all works as planned, the AACUS will fly between combat outposts with no direct human control, scan surroundings, detect obstacles, and enemies. There will be no need for resting a crew, and mission will be mostly conducted at night, in an automated fashion.
It's warfare logistics updated for the iPad age.
There will eventually be civilian uses of this technology as well. While drones have already been featured tools of domestic surveillance efforts, they could also be used for supply and rescue in harsh climates such as the Klondike, Rockies, or ships caught in a squall.
Completely automated version of the K-Max drones will start tests in 2014, and 2018, whichever developer gets the contract is scheduled to begin combat production.