- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Unmanned aircraft may in the future be used to evacuate casualties from the battlefield and for resupply missions, and Patuxent River Naval Air Station could be a key test site for those capabilities.
Members of The Patuxent Partnership and the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance joined with other members of the aviation community last week to learn more about the Office of Naval Research’s Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System.
Mary “Missy” Cummings, AACUS program manager, said the program is set to kick off within the next two months. Design review is scheduled for the end of fiscal year 2013, with four increasingly difficult flight demonstrations using two separate aircraft to follow in during the next four years, with final review at the end of fiscal year 2017. Cummings said that Pax River could wind up as a key player in one or more of the demonstrations.
“We are really the only innovative naval prototype at [the Office of Naval Research] and arguably one of the only near-term research projects that anyone in the DoD is sponsoring that is actually actively going to put an autonomous system in a real flight demonstration in 18 months,” Cummings said.
But what is the Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System?
“I think the first misconception about AACUS is that it is some sort of vehicle — a helicopter, a rotorcraft — something like that,” Cummings said. But AACUS is not an actual physical platform; it is a modular sensor package that Cummings hopes “will be able to be basically strapped on to various platforms,” she said. “That is important, because in this austere budget climate, we need to show the ability to be budget conscious and not pay some enormous sum to get capabilities that really should be generic across multiple platforms in the first place.”
The autonomous system, she said, is essentially a computer-based program that can reason on its own, performing real-world missions with little or no human input or control. And though it seems a bit like a sci-fi movie, Cummings said autonomy is actually becoming the norm.
“The idea basically came about because the Marine Corps specified a primary need for rapid resupply,” she said. “In our vision for AACUS, we see, say, a grunt on the ground with no aviation training whatsoever. He whips out his iPhone, his Android, whatever smartphone application, and is able to call a helicopter using AACUS to his location. This helicopter then responds to the request, takes off, finds its own route, finds the Marine who has requested it, finds its own landing site, and the helicopter is basically smart enough under a lot of uncertainty to land itself and get to the Marine who needs the supplies.”
Another application could be casualty evacuations. But Cummings said many a heated discussion arises when the topic of allowing an unmanned robot to carry an injured human being to safety is brought to the forefront.
“It’s a sociotechnical issue,” she said. “The question is, ‘How comfortable do we feel about letting a human be a passenger on an aircraft with no pilot?’ There’s this initial repulsion: ‘Uh, I don’t know how I feel about that.’
“Our gut response is not to trust autonomous systems,” Cummings said. “The reason why you are inherently distrusting of a robotic aircraft or some kind of robotic system in general is because you want that system to share your fate. If you’re in an aircraft, we somehow trust its human pilot more because we trust that pilot is going to do everything in his or her power to save his or her life before that thing goes down ... However, in most aircraft accidents, it is actually the fault of that same pilot.”
Cummings added that research has also shown how people react depends on their age.
“You talk to many young people today and they’ll say, ‘Sure, I’d fly in a helicopter with no pilot,’” she said. “But you talk to an older general and they’re more inclined to say, ‘I don’t know... it doesn’t sound like a good idea.’ Regardless of rank, though, if you put a Marine into a situation where he’s in a firefight and a buddy takes a bullet to the chest, and that buddy is going to die unless you put him on this robotic helicopter with no human on board to get him out of there and to a medical facility as quickly as possible, 100 percent of the time they’re going to say ‘Yes, absolutely.’”
While these discussions continue, AACUS technology itself is “nearly ready to go,” Cummings said.
“What we’ve got and have to have is a helicopter that from about five miles away can figure out where and how to land itself within two minutes, which is very difficult in today’s world given the speed of computation,” she said. “In our program, there’s no hovering allowed. If you do, in a hostile environment, you’re just a sitting duck.”
One person attending asked who would bear responsibility in the event that a manned aircraft and an unmanned aircraft were to crash mid-flight. “There have been numerous crashes already between manned and unmanned aircraft, and there has not really ever been one set answer,” Cummings said. “It’s really a technological problem, because GPS, for instance, isn’t always the best technology. Then you have to consider who is going to pay out in a lawsuit. There is never going to be one set answer for that question.”
Another patron asked how far a human has to be from a system before it can be considered autonomous.
“An autonomous system does not have to be completely devoid of a human; a human can be in the loop to sort of coach the system, but we don’t want the human completely controlling it,” she said. “Humans can bring in implicit knowledge, experience, they can make judgement calls, whereas autonomous systems are really just making a lot of guesses. So humans have the potential to add value to these systems, but we are striving for less control and more coaching, if anything.”
Cummings added she believes that commercial UAVs are the future of aviation. “I think the cargo aspect of commercial aviation will be starting to turn over to UAVs within the next five to 10 years, and by the time I die, then, I think you will see a massive fleet of commercial cargo UAVs.” That said, Cummings said that she “cannot in good conscience” suggest that anyone today go into manned aviation.
“I do not believe it is going to be on the cutting edge anymore,” she said. “It’s a whole new world out there — a new world filled with new capabilites.”