One day, pilotless helicopters could resupply troops in the field and at forward operating bases. In collaboration with the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the Navy and Marine Corps have been conducting tests of such a prospect. The National Aeronautic Association has selected the ONR program — known as the Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System (AACUS) — as a finalist for its prestigious Collier Trophy.
The AACUS system essentially entails rigging a conventional helicopter with sensors and software that enables it to fly to specific locations, avoid trouble, land, and take off autonomously. Users can learn quickly how to operate the system using hand-held tablets.

In December, the team of engineers and designers who developed AACUS successfully showed that the system works. During the demonstration, which took place at Quantico Marine Corps Base, Va., a Marine with only 15 minutes of training was able to program a resupply flight, performed by an AACUS-rigged UH-1 Huey helicopter.

“AACUS gives revolutionary capability to our fleet and force. It can be used as a pilot aid to operate in GPS- and communications-denied areas, or allow fully autonomous flights in contested environments — keeping our pilots and crews out of harm’s way,” said program manager Dennis Baker.

Previous winners of the Collier Trophy include the developers of Apollo 11, which delivered the first astronauts to walk on the Moon, and the Boeing 747 airliner. Baker and his colleagues on the AACUS team will learn if they would merit similar recognition on March 23, when the winner is announced. They are vying for the award with seven other finalists.