Public Release: 

Autonomous helicopter technology wins another major award

Office of Naval Research


IMAGE: QUANTICO, Va. (Dec. 12, 2017) A UH-1 Huey equipped with an Office of Naval Research (ONR)-sponsored Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS) autonomy kit makes an approach for landing during... view more 

Credit: (U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released)

ARLINGTON, Va.--On May 16, a revolutionary advance in autonomous flight capability was recognized with one of the nation's top innovation awards.

The Howard Hughes Award--given by the American Helicopter Society--was presented to the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and Aurora Flight Sciences for their joint work on the Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System, or AACUS.

AACUS allows any rotary-wing aircraft to fly completely autonomously and enables mission success even in austere environments.

"The team is honored to be recognized for our work," said Dr. Knox Millsaps, head of ONR's Naval Air Warfare and Weapons Department. "But we'll know if our work has been a real success if it can keep even one more warfighter safe and out of harm's way during a resupply mission--that's our true measure of success."

AACUS is a package of sensors and software that can be integrated into rotary-wing aircraft to provide safe, reliable and rapid delivery of cargo to Marines in the field using autonomous capabilities. These capabilities include flight, route planning, obstacle avoidance, landing selection--even on unprepared fields--and takeoffs.

Designed for simple use, AACUS employs an intuitive handheld tablet that allows a Marine in the field to call up needed supplies very quickly and easily.

That capability was on display in December 2017 when AACUS successfully completed its final demonstration --featuring a UH-1 "Huey" helicopter--at the Urban Training Center at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia. A highlight of the demonstration included a Marine requesting an autonomous resupply after only 15 minutes of training.

"The AACUS technology provides a revolutionary way to re-supply our forces in the field," said Millsaps. "It could simplify the logistics train for supplying critical warfighting cargo to forward-deployed troops, and do this in a more economical manner without placing human pilots at risk in high-threat environments."


AACUS has won and been nominated for other high-profile awards as well. In addition to receiving the Howard Hughes Award, the technology was a finalist for the recent National Aeronautic Association's 2017 Robert J. Collier Trophy.

And earlier this month, the program received the XCELLENCE Award in the category of "Detect and Avoid" from the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International.

AACUS was developed under an ONR Innovative Naval Prototype program in partnership with technology company Aurora Flight Sciences. The program is now with the Marine Corps for further experimentation and development.

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