QUANTICO, Va. — Fighting wars may soon change forever. On Tuesday, the military showed off a helicopter that doesn’t need a pilot in the cockpit — or on the ground.
The Huey helicopter has been around since the Vietnam War, but this one could start a revolution. It can fly itself, so the pilot in the cockpit is just a safety observer, keeping his hands close to but not on the controls.
The person actually telling the helicopter what to do is Marine Sgt. Dionte Jones.
“If the helo comes in and requests permission to land, I would give it permission to land,” said Jones. “When it’s ready to leave, or when I unload all the stuff that I need, it will ask me permission to leave, I’ll give it permission to leave. And it’s really just that simple.”
Sgt. Jones has no joystick, instead he pilots the helicopter with a remote control. It’s a tablet that issues basic instructions and no prior experience is required. “15 minutes of training with the tablet,” said Jones. “Anybody can pick it up. It’s real easy.”
The Office of Naval Research, which developed the technology, says it’s placing a large bet that autonomous aircraft can take the place of humans. The flight computer that turns the helicopter into a self-flying aircraft took five years and $98 million to develop and it can be installed on any helicopter.
A pod on the nose of the aircraft constantly scans for obstacles, warning the computer of hard-to-see hazards like power lines.
The initial concept is to use self-flying helicopters to deliver supplies to Marines in the field, freeing up pilots for other missions. The Vietnam-era Huey will fly into the future when it starts training with Marines in California this spring.