After spending the last several years refining its autonomy solutions on small drones, Pennsylvania-based Near Earth Autonomy once again has its system flying on a full-scale helicopter in a project that could help pave the way for autonomous eVTOL aircraft.
Near Earth announced last week that it is collaborating with Kaman on an autonomy upgrade for the unmanned K-Max with support from the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR). A video released at the same time teases the program’s early progress, showing the single-seat utility helicopter — which is capable of lifting up to 6,000 pounds (2,720 kilograms) of cargo on its hook — using its onboard cameras, lidar and processing system to autonomously sense and avoid obstacles and select safe landing zones.
That’s a step change from the previous version of the unmanned K-Max, which flew missions in Afghanistan for the U.S. Marine Corps between 2011 and 2013. That program was credited with moving over 4.5 million pounds (2 million kilograms) of cargo during its 33 months of operation, but relied on remote pilots who would take control of the helicopters as they approached cargo drop-off points and landing zones.
“It was fairly basic technology — we’re talking about something that’s about a decade old,” explained Near Earth CEO Sanjiv Singh. In June 2013, one of these earlier models crashed in Afghanistan while attempting to deliver cargo to an outpost; its underslung load reportedly began oscillating in an unexpected tailwind, and its remote pilots did not react quickly enough to maintain control of the helicopter.
By contrast, Near Earth is developing an autonomy package that will allow the K-Max to actively sense and respond to its surroundings without relying on a human operator. The system builds on technology that was initially developed for full-scale helicopters in 2014 for the Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System (AACUS) program. Sponsored by the Office of Naval Research, that program was a finalist for the prestigious Collier Trophy in 2017.
Since then, Near Earth has been perfecting its autonomy package in small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Last year, it validated its obstacle avoidance technology as part of a Joint Capability Technology Demonstration for the U.S. military, which saw active-duty Army soldiers and Marines use UAS equipped with the autonomy package to execute 64 resupply missions.
The NAVAIR project with Kaman — the current phase of which will run through fall of next year — is still in its early stages. However, Singh pointed out that having the autonomy package back on a large platform will be helpful not only for refining the underlying technology, but also guiding its further development in ways that will be suitable for other full-scale aircraft.
“There’s a lot to do at this scale,” he said. “And I think that our experience at this scale is going to give us an idea of what it is we should be doing next.”
Sophisticated autonomy solutions like those being developed by Near Earth are widely seen as key enablers for urban air mobility, which will entail moving large numbers of people safely with next-generation eVTOL aircraft. While most eVTOL developers expect to start with piloted operations, long-term business models like Uber Elevate’s hinge on eventually replacing the pilot’s station with a revenue-generating passenger seat.
Singh said that programs like the unmanned K-Max are helpful in advancing autonomy in parallel with eVTOL aircraft development.
“Right now on the eVTOL side there’s a lot of emphasis on just getting the vehicles to be operational. . . . It’s not trivial at all to get an electric aircraft to carry useful payload, whether that’s people or cargo, and to do that reliably,” he said.
“The question is well, OK, if you had that [eVTOL capability], what would you do next with it? This program gives us a way of answering that question about autonomy and what kind of operations we might do at this scale, without actually waiting for the eVTOL world to happen today.”