Having pushed unmanned systems further than any other U.S. service, the Army is preparing to take the next steps, fielding a vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) aircraft and raising manned-unmanned teaming to a higher level. While VTOL will provide the U.S. Army with new basing, operating and sensing options, teaming is central to its plans for future rotorcraft that could be optionally manned.

The Army is embarked on the two-track journey to a vertical-lift unmanned aircraft, fielding an existing system as a quick-reaction capability while developing requirements for a follow-on VTOL UAS program of record. Three Boeing A160T Hummingbird unmanned helicopters are scheduled to be deployed to Afghanistan in June, but the second track hit a bump in the road in February when the U.S. Navy canceled its planned Medium-Range Maritime Unmanned Aerial System (MRMUAS) program.

To help define its requirements for a VTOL UAS, the Army had joined the Navy's MRMUAS analysis of alternatives (AOA). Despite the cancellation of the program for budget reasons, the Army says it will still complete the AOA with the Navy. “Once it is complete, the Army will make its own decision independent from the Navy MRMUAS on the utility of a VTOL UAS and what capability gaps or focus areas the platform can cover,” the service says.

Going into the AOA, the Army had envisioned its VTOL UAS being an existing platform such as the Boeing A160, Lockheed Martin/Kaman unmanned K-Max or Northrop Grumman/Bell Fire-X, but industry sources say the Navy's range requirements were pushing the MRMUAS to a much larger vehicle. Separated from the Navy, it remains to seen whether the Army's requirements can be met by an off-the-shelf platform.

Boeing, meanwhile, is preparing to fly the Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging Sensor (Argus-IS) on the A160, ahead of its planned deployment. Developed for the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (Darpa), BAE Systems' Argus-IS is a wide-area surveillance sensor that provides multiple independent video feeds to the ground.

Mounted in a pod under the A160, the gigapixel electro-optical sensor can provide at least 65 video windows across its field of view to stream continuous imagery of fixed areas or automatically track moving vehicles or individuals. Argus-IS is a daylight-only sensor, but Darpa is working on an infrared version, Argus-IR; Lockheed Martin is developing the sensor and BAE Systems, the airborne processor. Argus-IR will provide at least 130 independently steerable video streams.

Darpa budget documents suggest the Army plans to use Argus-equipped A160s to detect threat networks by fusing wide-area motion imagery and radio-frequency signals intelligence to detect the locations, movements and communications associated with insurgent activity. Under the Wide Area Network Detection program, Darpa is to deliver a prototype “multi-entity geospatial activity correlator” to the Army Argus A160 program this year, with an upgraded version planned to follow in fiscal 2013.

While the A160s are prepared for deployment, the Army is monitoring the U.S. Marine Corps' use of K-Max helicopters in Afghanistan for unmanned cargo resupply—a likely mission for the VTOL UAS. The Army's Autonomous Technologies for Unmanned Air Systems (Atuas) is a joint concept technology demonstration for this mission, using the proven K-Max as the testbed.

Atuas will demonstrate a small beacon that can be placed on the ground at the delivery site. The aircraft will autonomously find the beacon, sense its direction and put down the load a pre-set distance away. This avoids the need for a soldier to take control of the air vehicle at the remote drop site, as must now be done with the K-Max in Afghanistan.

The program will also demonstrate a ladar-based delivery-site selection system. “No one will need to be there,” says Keith Arthur, team lead for teaming and intelligent systems in the systems integration division of the Army's Aviation Applied Technology Directorate (AATD). “They will give it GPS coordinates, the system will scan the area and choose the spot,” he says. Atuas is also developing an autonomous retrograde cargo capacity. “The forward operating base can prepare a load and walk away. The helo will pick it up after delivering its load.”

The Atuas demonstration will lead into the Synergistic Unmanned-Manned Intelligent Teaming (Sumit) program, which AATD plans to launch in fiscal 2014 to demonstrate the next generation of UAS autonomy and crew decision-aiding. Running in fiscal 2014-19, Sumit is to comprise demonstrations of the unmanned aircraft acting as an autonomous wingman and of manned-unmanned teaming in the scout/attack mission.

“The vision of autonomy we are shooting for includes manned systems as well as unmanned,” says Arthur. “When the human needs something done, they will indicate it in some intuitive way, it will happen, and they won't know whether the software and hardware that does it is on their own aircraft, another aircraft, on the ground or in the cloud.”