The Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System awards from the Office of Naval Research are for five years and worth a combined $98 million.
"AACUS is a leap-ahead technology that allows the Navy and the Marine Corps to move beyond having a highly trained operator fly an unmanned aircraft," said Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research. "The program will let us leverage advanced autonomy but still maintain the central and critical role of the human operator as the supervisor."
The Navy said it is looking for joint industry-academia teams to compete for contracts under the program. Among systems to be developed are systems for threat and obstacle detection and avoidance.
An earlier program produced a prototype semi-autonomous aircraft for transporting supplies externally with the use of a sling and it was used in Afghanistan last month. This project aims at loads carried internally.
The earlier aircraft, called K-MAX, requires a trained pilot within line of sight. Not so the envisioned aircraft.
"It's going to be designed to work with people who have no flight experience," said Mary Cummings, program officer for AACUS. "An operator will pick up his iPad or Android and make an emergency supply request. He'll request that the helicopter come to him and land as close to him as possible."
The helicopter to be developed will take off by itself, plan its flight path and navigate by itself.
ONR, which will award the work in April, is asking for proposal submissions next month.