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Looks Like Everybody Wants Unmanned Cargo Capabilities

A multi-service general officer panel appearing at one industry conference in late 2011 was faced with an audience question of when the coming fiscal environment might force the services to combine or consolidate their requirements for new systems or capabilities. Several simultaneous side glances finally led to one panelist attempting to address the question with the observation that the U.S. armed services have yet to agree on a single abbreviation for the rank of major general.

Hope does spring eternal, so some observers see a glimmer of hope for cooperative system progress in two different service announcements over the past month that seem to reflect their own unique interest in what appears to be the same system capability for a vertical takeoff and landing unmanned cargo aircraft.

The recent round of activity started when the United States Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR) released a broad agency announcement targeting the development and demonstration of sensor and control technologies for autonomous cargo vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft in unprepared and hostile environments.

Designated as the Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS) Innovative Naval Prototype (INP), the announcement outlines the development of advanced autonomous capabilities to enable rapid cargo delivery by unmanned and potentially optionally manned Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) systems.

“AACUS-enabled vehicles should provide affordable and reliable rapid response cargo delivery to distributed small units in demanding, austere locations and environments,” it states. “AACUS encompasses the development and implementation of VTOL-based obstacle detection and avoidance, as well as autonomous landings at unprepared off-field non-cooperative landing sites, including dynamic contingency planning to the point of landing with goal-based supervisory control by any field personnel with no special training.”

K-MAX USMC VUAV cargo

The K-MAX unmanned helicopter takes off from Camp Dwyer with its sling load of 3,500 pounds of food and supplies for troops at Combat Outpost Payne in the first unmanned vertical takeoff unmanned aerial vehicle delivery of cargo in a combat zone, Dec. 17, 2011. Is it possible that other services might leverage the Marine Corps’ unmanned cargo delivery efforts? U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Justin M. Boling

According to the supporting concept of operations (CONOPS), AACUS is “an Innovative Naval Prototype (INP) sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (ONR). The goal of the AACUS INP is to develop and demonstrate intelligent autonomous capabilities for a future aerial cargo and utility system that provides rapid, affordable, reliable, shipboard-compatible, supply and casualty evacuation. AACUS technology is intended to support and/or enhance these missions when other cargo and insertion/extraction options are not available, or when the risk of using manned aircraft is too high.”

While acknowledging that the AACUS INP is “focused on the sensor suite and interface development,” the CONOPS does offer a number of vehicle specifications “for context,” including:

  • Operations at greater than 12,000 feet density altitude;
  • Delivering multiple in-stride cargo drops over round trip distances with a threshold of 150 nautical miles and an objective of 365 nautical miles;
  • Able to carry a threshold of 1,600 lpounds and an objective of 5,000 pounds of payload internally, and;
  • Travel at speeds of 110 knots threshold and 250 knots objective.

Just a few weeks later, on Jan. 6, 2012, The U.S. Army Contracting Command, Fort Dix, N.J., on behalf of the U.S. Army Logistics Innovation Agency (LIA), released a new request for information reflecting interest in “exploring future (7-10 years out) capability concepts for Cargo Unmanned Aircraft Systems. Information gained from the future concepts presentations will be used to form the basis for future analysis and assessment of the Cargo UAS utility within the Army.”

“Concepts shall include aerial delivery of cargo directly to the point-of-need or point-of-effect to tactical combat range of 300 nautical miles (KM) with cruising airspeeds of 250 knots or greater with vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capability,” it stated, adding other attributes like the “Ability to carry  between 5,000 and 8,000 pounds of all classes of supply to include but not limited to ammunition, water, fuel, etc. internally and externally” and the “Ability to operate takeoff/land at sea level on a standard day and to takeoff/land at 95 F, 12,000 feet Density Altitude (DA) with appropriate payloads.”

The Army is planning to host a Cargo UAS industry day in mid-February to allow interested contractors “who have experience, knowledge, and/or concepts concerning the development and use (concept of operations) of a Cargo UAS … to present their concepts/ideas to government representatives from LIA, the Army, Marine Corps, and Navy. …”

Hope springs eternal…

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Scott Gourley is a former U.S. Army officer and the author of more than 1,500...