We may be closer to the day when United States Marines will, within a matter of minutes, use a handheld app to summon robotic helicopters to deliver battlefield supplies. On Tuesday, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) announced its five-year, US$98 million Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS) program, with the specific aim of developing "sensors and control technologies for robotic vertical take-off and landing aircraft."

ONR's chief of naval research, Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, describes AACUS as a "leap-ahead technology" which eliminates the need for a skilled operator while maintaining "the central and critical role of the human operator as the supervisor." If it comes to fruition, AACUS would constitute an evolutionary step beyond the unmanned, remote control variant of the K-MAX helicopter, which flew its first unmanned combat missions in December.

Though sometimes described as semi-autonomous, the unmanned K-MAX requires a skilled operator within light-of-sight to be able to delivery its payload (so it's not autonomous at all). AACUS, by contrast, would be a robot in the truest sense, taking off, planning, and navigating a flight path "with little to no input from an operator."

"It's going to be designed to work with people who have no flight experience," said AACUS program officer Dr. Mary Cummings. "An operator will pick up his iPad or Android and make an emergency supply request. He'll request that the helicopter come to him and land as close to him as possible."

For now, the AACUS program is the beginnings of an idea, much less a prototype. The development of an intelligent delivery aircraft will involve more than mere cherry-picking from existing technologies. Concrete breakthroughs in the field of artificial intelligence will be necessary. "How you take the data from sensors and integrate them to make these decisions - that's one of the big leaps," Cummings added. "It's like putting a frontal lobe on the helicopter."

Proposals for the AACUS program will be put before the ONR by February 22 of this year, which plans to award up to two contracts in April.