The Army's Drone Helicopters Will Airmail Driverless Cars to the Battlefield

We’ve reached peak autonomy.

Image: Carnegie Melon University

Last month we learned that the military is developing a pilotless version of its iconic Black Hawk helicopter. Now we have some idea of how the new drone will be used.

For the next 18 months, a group of researchers will work to program the autonomous Black Hawk to deliver a driverless vehicle through the sky and lower it down on the ground where it will autonomously survey the land.

The car-toting robocopter will carry the all-terrain vehicle in a belly sling, scope out the best place to land, and then set the self-driving, sensing car free to search the area for dangerous contaminants.

"All of this will occur out of direct sight, without human intervention and without putting human lives at risk," explained a press release announcing the project, called Extended Operational Reach with Autonomous Air and Ground Vehicles.

The effort is a collaboration between robotics engineers at Carnegie Mellon University, Sikorsky, manufacturer of the Black Hawk helicopter, and US Army researchers.

Autonomous Black Hawk. Image: Sikorsky

Sikorsky's drone copter can tote up to 8,000 pounds (about three times the size of your average sedan) in its sling while flying over 140 mph. It'll be programmed using the recently developed "autonomous mission manager" to deliver the driverless ATV and then make its way back to base.

The ATV in question is Sikorsky’s Land Tamer vehicle, which is being modified with an autonomous driving system.

Pairing the autonomous land and air vehicles will “provide hundreds of miles in range and the ability to collect data on the ground,” project manager Jeremy Searock told me in an email.

“An air vehicle by itself is limited in its ability to collect data at ground level. A ground vehicle by itself cannot travel everywhere due to fuel or terrain limitations,” said Searock. “Combining them as one autonomous team provides an incredible capability that keeps humans at a safe distance.”

The roboticization of the military increasingly depends on unmanned planes and vehicles, the benefit of course being that it keeps humans out of harm's way. This, however, is the first project that combines the helicopter drone and self-driving car. We’ve reached peak autonomy. Everyone can go home now.