Tomorrow’s Tech: Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System

Image - Concept for an Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System

By Cmdr. Max Snell (Ret), U.S. Navy, and Col J. Kevin Dodge (Ret.), U.S. Marine Corps

The alarm on Staff Sgt. Stone’s handheld device went off, indicating it was 0545. He’d already been awake for at least 15 minutes thinking about all the things he had to do today. His biggest concern was whether or not battalion was going to be able to deliver much-needed supplies to their outpost. His company was getting critically low on water, ammo, and batteries, and deliveries had been canceled for the past three days because of high winds and low visibility. Today, the weather forecast was still marginal with visibility in and out, but the winds seemed to have abated some and he was hoping the air wing would be able to fly. Stone threw on his cammies, grabbed his weapon, and headed to chow. His handheld vibrated as he was sipping his coffee; he had a message from battalion reporting that an AACUS-configured CH-53K Super Stallion would be arriving at 0930 with the company’s supplies.

Stone sat back and thought to himself. AACUS? Oh yeah, the Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System developed to improve logistics support. It was a new piece of equipment fielded by the composite squadron and now in theater for the first time. He’d received about 30 minutes of training on the AACUS application installed on his handheld. He launched the AACUS app, and it provided confirmation of delivery and an updated ETA of 0935. He knew that AACUS kits were installed in a couple of CH-53Ks, enabling the “Kilos” to fly without pilots if needed because of adverse weather or other threat conditions. Stone had yet to see AACUS in action and was curious to see how things would turn out, but he was also anxious to get the critical supplies the company desperately needed.

Back at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Puller, Capt. “Soupy” Campbell looked up as the new guy, 1st Lt. “Shrub” Buescher, walked into the ready room. Soupy signaled for Shrub to join him so they could start briefing for their upcoming hop. After discussing the weather, course rules and their assigned mission, Soupy asked Shrub if he was familiar with AACUS. Having just completed his training at the CH-53K training squadron before reporting, he was in the first cadre of aviators to get AACUS training as part of the syllabus. Shrub explained that AACUS was a software and sensor system that could be used on a variety of platforms and enabled the Kilo to become an optionally piloted aircraft vehicle. In the manned configuration, the AACUS sensors could be used while airborne to detect and avoid obstacles, such as power lines, as well as to survey the landing area during final approach when visibility was poor to avoid hazards on the ground. AACUS was particularly handy in their current theater of operations since they could expect to encounter such conditions regularly. In the unmanned autonomous mode, the Kilos were capable of executing the entire mission profile even in degraded weather. With AACUS, the Kilos could take off, navigate en route, avoid threat areas, select a landing site, make a final approach, and land in unprepared locations while avoiding all obstacles. AACUS maintains communication using a satellite data link to both the ground control station at the FOB and the field operator’s handheld at the destination.

Soupy and Shrub finished their brief, donned their flight gear, signed out Wolfpack 733 from maintenance control, and stepped onto the flight line. As they were preflighting their bird they both looked over as Wolfpack 731 taxied by on its logistics resupply mission. They both stared at the cockpit, shaking their heads in a bit of amazement as the aircraft passed them without anyone. Both pilots exchanged a “not sure if I’ll ever get used to that” look. The buzz had started; AACUS was a game-changer.

Back at Combat Outpost (COP) Butler, Staff Sgt. Stone received another AACUS message on his handheld providing a mission status and cargo manifest. Wolfpack 731 was airborne with an ETA of 0931. Stone checked his watch and saw that it was 0915 when he started to hear some small-arms fire from the east. As the company commander organized a response, Stone whipped out his handheld, typed in a no-fly zone, and transmitted the coordinates to the fire support coordination center, which approved the control measure and simultaneously transmitted it to the direct air support center and Wolfpack 731 received and processed the threat information and immediately calculated a new flight plan that avoided the no-fly zone and transmitted an updated ETA to the COP.

Stone’s handheld gave him an updated ETA of 0936. He headed to the supply tent, grabbed two Marines, geared up, and headed to the landing zone. They could hear the CH-53K approaching from the north. Wolfpack 731 sent a final message to Stone’s handheld that identified the landing point. Stone smiled as he saw that it was only 50 meters from his current position. One of the Marines instinctively popped a smoke flare and tossed it toward the landing point. Stone shook his head and growled a few words at the Marine, who immediately turned beet red when he realized the pointlessness of his actions. The Kilo made its final approach and flared onto the exact spot it had indicated to Stone. The automatic cargo loading/unloading system immediately began jettisoning pods full of the company’s requisitioned supplies. Wolfpack 731 then sent Stone a message that all the pods had been offloaded, and it was preparing for takeoff to the south for its next delivery.

Just as Stone was going to approve the AACUS request to depart, he was informed of a casualty evacuation request followed immediately by a request to hold Wolfpack 731 in the zone. A light armored vehicle pulled up shortly and two corpsmen hopped out and began to unload a wounded Marine for transfer to the Kilo. Stone rushed over and pointed out that this was an unmanned aircraft, and he wasn’t sure if they should load the wounded Marine.

The leading corpsman explained that if the Marine didn’t make it back to the battalion aid station within the next 30 minutes he probably wouldn’t live.

Stone got on the horn with his company commander who verified the request. Stone got out his handheld and programmed in the emergency casualty evacuation for immediate liftoff. AACUS, as well as the ground control station  operator at the FOB, acknowledged and concurred. The corpsmen loaded the wounded Marine aboard the aircraft. Wolfpack 731 then lifted off and headed back to FOB Puller. Stone wondered how he would feel about riding in a helo without a pilot on board. He growled again at the Marines to get the supply pods into the Humvees that were waiting for the cargo. Once the cargo was loaded he headed to the supply tent and was alerted to a message on his handheld that Wolfpack 731 had landed and the wounded Marine was being offloaded.

Soupy and Shrub had just returned from their mission and shut down Wolfpack 733 when they watched the wounded Marine being unloaded from Wolfpack 731. They did a quick post-flight inspection of their helo, filled out the required paperwork in maintenance control, and then headed to the mess tent. As they were sitting down to eat the word began to pass that the wounded Marine had been stabilized and that it appeared he would survive as a result of his rapid arrival at the aid station. Soupy took a bite of his slider, washed it down with some bug juice, and quipped, “Wonder where they’ll pin the Air Medal on Wolfpack 731?”

About the Authors:

Cmdr. Snell is a retired A-6E bombardier/navigator and aeronautical engineering duty officer. He is a civil servant assigned to the Chief Technology Office at the Naval Air Systems Command and is currently on detail to the Office of Naval Research as the AACUS program manager. Col. Dodge is a retired Marine aviator and former V-22 test director and Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Littoral and Mine Warfare. Currently the vice president/director of the American Systems Science and Technology Integration Center, he is active in the concept development for AACUS and serves as a member of the AACUS advisory group.

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