Newly Unveiled Technology Runs on Tablet App, Enables Unmanned Aircraft to Choose Flight Routes and Landing Sites
The U.S. Navy has unveiled new drone technology that allows the craft to take off and plot its routes autonomously, without a ground-based pilot. The drones carrying the new software will likely be deployed within a year. Photo: Office of Naval Research.
WASHINGTON—Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder has positioned himself to become the Jeff Bezos of the Pentagon. Much as the Amazon.com Inc.ZN in Your Value Your Change Short position founder envisions mini-drones that deliver small packages across America, Adm. Klunder, the Navy's research chief, wants to create innovative unmanned helicopters able to perform tasks now carried out by humans: resupplying troops in remote areas and rescuing wounded Marines from the battlefield.
His plan is moving ahead, and Navy officials will unveil new technology Saturday that with the push of a button allows helicopters—manned or unmanned—to choose their own routes, take off and land.
The Navy views the five-year, $100 million program as a major advance in the Pentagon's hopes for taking the "manned out of unmanned" aircraft. Over the next decade, the military is aiming to create autonomous drones that can help soldiers carry out night raids, search oceans for trouble, and select targets for attack.
This is "truly leap-ahead technology," Adm. Klunder said of the new autonomous helicopter advances.
"What we're talking about doing with full size helicopters—and we've done it—we're talking about delivering 5,000 pounds of cargo," he said.
The Navy program has put the system through successful test runs at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Va.
Using a special app and a tablet, operators given only a half-hour of training were able to direct small helicopters to land on their own. The helicopters can choose their own routes, pick landing sites and change their destination if they spot unexpected obstacles that emerge at the last minute.
Autonomous technology will make it easier for the military, which won't have to rely on highly trained operators to route and land helicopters.
But while it could mark the advent of an era in which the military operates more sophisticated equipment with fewer people, it also is likely to stir concern about an overreliance on technology.
"We're starting to move into an autonomous regime, and that's going to have hugely disruptive effects," said Shawn Brimley, a former Pentagon official who is now executive director of the Center for a New American Security. "I would almost call it a revolution."
To some, the foray into autonomous aircraft is a move that conjures images of killer drones, capable of choosing targets and hunting them down without human oversight.
To address those concerns, the Pentagon has devised special guidelines meant to ensure that the military won't allow drones to carry out "kill missions" without human involvement.
Autonomous drones that require less human oversight could also take some strain off the Pentagon as it cuts back the size of the military to deal with budget cuts.
The Pentagon's expanding drone fleet has limited ability to operate autonomously. The Navy's experimental combat drone, the X-47B, landed itself on an aircraft carrier last July. The Army wants to create a robot that can operate on its own in helping soldiers search for suspects.
The Navy and the Marine Corps envision using the autonomous helicopter technology to more easily fly tons of supplies to remote bases. Military developers are even talking about the prospect of using the system to carry out emergency battlefield evacuations for troops.
The new systems, developed by Lockheed Martin Corp. and Aurora Flight Sciences, are designed to be used on the Pentagon's biggest helicopters, officials said.
Development still has a way to go. The new drone capabilities still must face more challenging trials, such as flying at night and in difficult weather. But military officials expressed confidence they could begin using the system in a year.
"As far as innovative projects go, I can't think of one that's more important to the Marine Corps right now—or one that shows as much promise," said Brig. Gen. Kevin Killea, commander of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory and Adm. Klunder's deputy.