Competition heats up over cargo UAVs

Unmanned helicopters would reduce danger to transport personnel

The U.S. military is keenly interested in employing unmanned aerial vehicles to support cargo delivery and this has touched off a scramble among defense contractors to position themselves to win contracts to produce such systems, reports William Matthews at Defense News.

The push for helicopter UAVs to deliver supplies to U.S. forces in Afghanistan is driven by the need to reduce exposure to helicopter crews and vehicle convoy troops assigned to deliver supplies to remote outposts. Helicopters face tangible threats from enemy ground fire, while ground convoys face the ever-present danger of roadside bombs.

Kaman Aerospace Corp., of Bloomfield, Conn, is pushing hard to get the Marine Corps to consider an unmanned variant of its K-MAX, a 5,145-pound “synchropter” powered by two rotors mounted side by side. The rotors are titled slightly outward and synchronized so that their blades work in tandem but do not collide.

Kaman, which has teamed on the effort with Lockheed Martin, tested the unmanned K-MAX in various cargo transport scenarios earlier this month at the Army’s Dugway Proving Ground, Utah. Kaman built the helicopter, and Lockheed Martin produced the mission control system. The tests included transporting 1,500-pound loads.

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Meanwhile, the Army tested Northrop Grumman’s Fire Scout unmanned helicopter this month at Fort Benning, Ga. Originally designed as a reconnaissance UAV for Navy ships, the company is gauging the Fire Scout’s ability to carry 600 pounds of supplies in containers mounted on its skids.

The K-MAX and Fire Scout, both of which use global positioning satellite systems for navigation, can fly either autonomously or respond to instructions from a ground operator. Unlike the K-MAX, the Fire Scout does not fly blind but instead is outfitted with an electro-optical/infrared sensor to observe the landing zone.

Neither system has a collision-avoidance system, but the manufacturers say they could provide one if requested.

Army officials said in January they were no longer interested in purchasing the Fire Scout for reconnaissance work following cancellation of the Future Combat Systems program. However, the Navy does plan to continue to use it in a reconnaissance role.

The Air Force, which also is open to the possibility of vertical or short takeoff-and-landing aircraft for cargo transport, issued a notice to aircraft makers in fall 2009 for a UAV that could deliver 500 to 3,000 pounds of cargo in a radius of 500 nautical miles at airspeeds of 250 knots or greater.

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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