Near Earth Autonomy is working with the U.S. military to develop unmanned aerial contingency management systems for autonomous resupply missions.
The Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based company revealed on April 7 that it validated its obstacle avoidance technology last year as part of a Joint Capability Technology Demonstration (JCTD) for unmanned logistics systems – air (ULS-A). The U.S. Marine Corps is seeking to develop ULS-A for a variety of battlefield logistics missions in small, medium, and large sizes — from small drones with payloads of around 60 to 150 pounds (25 to 70 kilograms) to larger aircraft that could include passenger-carrying eVTOLs.
“From a logistics standpoint, the Marines are looking to deliver small- to medium-weight supplies like water, beans, and ammunition to forward operating bases,” explained Robert McKinney of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, technical manager for the ULS-A JCTD, in a Near Earth Autonomy press release. “We’re looking at fully autonomous rather than just manually operated vehicles. Without a man in the loop, losses are minimal and there are no humans at risk.”
Near Earth’s autonomy systems give aircraft the ability to sense and avoid obstacles and other air traffic, and identify suitable landing zones — capabilities that will be essential for safe, reliable autonomous resupply missions. The company showed off those capabilities in a ULS-A demonstration in September 2019, when 16 active-duty U.S. Army soldiers and Marines used Near Earth’s technology to safely execute 64 resupply missions in an operational demonstration at Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia.
“This was the first opportunity for the military users to interact with the ULS-A capability,” said ULS-A operational manager Joe Fagan. “Whether they were uploading autonomy packages, downloading data, or operating as safety pilots, I was continually impressed with the breadth and depth of the Near Earth Autonomy team.”
According to Near Earth, the demonstration concluded the first year of a three-year JCTD program. The military plans to continue collaborating with Near Earth Autonomy to expand its autonomous resupply capabilities.
“I see the future of ULS-A eventually evolving into a medium-size platform that’s able to provide a diverse distribution portfolio,” stated Master Gunnery Sergeant Ulrich, one of the participants in the demonstration. “Within the JCTD year two and three, we’ll be looking at bigger, faster, stronger platforms, meaning more battery life, more distribution capability, and overall increasing the ability to keep the warfighter in the fight.”