"Hello, this is your pilot, Captain Siri, speaking. We're approaching our destination now. Please return your seats to their upright position... strap on your body armor, and check your weapons and ammo."
Is your pilot a robot? If you serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, this scenario could become reality soon. For the past several years, the Pentagon has been busy experimenting with the "roboticization" of its air arms. At the highest profile, this includes the building of thousands of unmanned airplanes, ranging in size from AeroVironment's (Nasdaq: AVAV ) tiny Ravens and Wasps all the way up to General Atomics' giant Predator drone. But the Army's also keenly interested in developing unmanned helicopters capable of running missions ranging from mundane supply drops to search-and-rescue in "hot" landing zones.
So far, the latter group of robot aircraft includes established platforms such as Northrop Grumman's (NYSE: NOC ) Fire Scout (already in service with the U.S. Navy), as well as newer entries from Boeing (NYSE: BA ) and Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT ) , responsible for the A160T Hummingbird and K-MAX, respectively, and United Technologies' (NYSE: UTX ) experimental robot Black Hawk.
The concept seems to be proving out, because now the Pentagon's moving forward with a new initiative to integrate all these various robo-helos into a single operating system. Dubbed the Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System (AACUS, painfully pronounced "ACHE-us"), the new program aims to create a plug-and-play package of sensors, software, computers, and controls that can be installed into any ordinary helicopter, transforming it into a flying robot. Ideally, a remote pilot will then be able to wirelessly command the helo with just a few commands tapped into an iPad or other tablet PC.
According to Wired.com, Boeing, Lockheed, and Northrop are each expected to bid on AACUS. But I'll go a step further and predict United Tech will bid as well. In fact, I'll go two steps further, and predict the winners for you. I not only expect UTC to bid on AACUS, but also to win one of the two prototype slots that the Pentagon will award in 2014. Thanks to the work it's done roboticizing the Black Hawk helo, I think UTC has a leg up on the competition to automate other originally pilot-manned birds.
The other winner: Northrop Grumman. It's got the most experience -- period -- building unmanned helicopters. I think Northrop not only wins a slot in the first round of the competition, but also wins the ultimate production contract, scheduled for award in 2018.
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