Airbus U.S. Space and Defense is pitching a version of its UH-72 Lakota helicopter as a potential unmanned resupply aircraft for the Marine Corps and will continue to develop it under a Marine Corps contract.

Airbus announced this week Naval Air Systems Command awarded it an other transactional authority agreement to develop a prototype for the U.S. Marine Corps’ Aerial Logistics Connector program.

In April, Carl Forsling, Airbus’ senior manager of business development and strategy for Marine Corps programs, told Defense News the company had already been developing its UH-72 Unmanned Logistics Connector using internal company funds.

Forsling said the Marines are looking at light and medium unmanned aerial systems to resupply squads and other small units operating away from ships and logistics hubs. This effort aims to create a large platform that can resupply larger units, such as the Marine littoral regiments the Corps is establishing in the Pacific to conduct expeditionary advanced base operations.

He said the UH-72 Unmanned Logistics Connector would leverage the Lakota platform — its mature airframe, its low flight hour costs, its well-understood maintenance needs — but would be built on the production line to be autonomous.

The biggest physical change to the aircraft would be a fly-by-wire capability, so the helo’s hydraulic actuators are commanded by an electronic signal rather than a pilot physically moving a control stick.

But Forsling said there are two challenges the company will tackle under this Marine Corps contract: adding autonomy such that the aircraft can make flight decisions on its own, and integrating the system into the larger Marine Corps command-and-control network.

The Marine Corps briefing slides showed at the Modern Day Marine conference note this Aerial Logistics Connector will be the aviation contribution to a larger contested logistics effort. Service leaders signed an acquisition decision memorandum in March to begin this prototyping phase, and the slides show four companies will be awarded contracts to build prototypes.

NAVAIR spokeswoman Megan Wasel told Defense News only one contract, the Airbus agreement, has been awarded to date.

These vendors will demonstrate their prototypes in late summer into early fall of this year, according to the slides.

Forsling told Defense News that basing its offering on a helicopter with a “huge number of flight hours and platform maturity” will help it create a successful prototype.

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

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