Lockheed Martin and Aurora Flight Sciences have been awarded contracts by the US Office of Naval Research (ONR) to design and develop a robotic rotorcraft for quick delivery of autonomous aerial cargo to the battlefield.
The contract is part of ONR's five-year $98m initiative, which intends to develop sensors and control technologies for robotic vertical takeoff and landing aircraft.
With an initial funding of $28m, the industry-led team will develop prototype concepts under the autonomous aerial cargo utility system (AACUS) programme to support the US Navy and Marine Corps units.
The AACUS programme is for soldiers to operate the robotic aircraft with a device similar to a smartphone, delivering urgent ammunition and supplies at an unprepared landing site under varied conditions.
ONR's naval air warfare and weapons department head Mike Deitchman said: "We are trying to develop an autonomous system to deliver supplies to the battlefront more quickly, and to get our vehicle convoys off dangerous roads, where they're much more vulnerable to attack."
AACUS will feature artificial intelligence and autonomous sensing and perception technologies to provide threat and obstacle-detection and avoidance systems, as well as automatic landing capabilities.
Scheduled to start before the end of 2012, work on the contract will be followed by autonomous systems demonstration for line-of-sight missions and operations in a GPS-denied environment in early 2014.
Programme officer Dr Mary Cummings said: "The goal is to get to a first flight demonstration in 18 months in a realistic setting at a test range with obstacles present."
In addition to the industry partners, ONR has partnered with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the US Army Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center to achieve full operational capabilities of the programme.