UAS & Robotics
Marines’ trail-blazing unmanned helicopter returns home
- By Kevin McCaney
- Jul 30, 2014
On Dec. 17, 2011, an unmanned K-MAX helicopter delivered roughly 3,500 pounds of food and supplies from Camp Dwyer to Combat Outpost Payne in Afghanistan, its first mission in what was planned to be a six-month assessment. Two and a half years and several million pounds of food, water, ammunition and other supplies later, two K-MAX helicopters were recently decommissioned by the Marine Corps and sent back to the States to be put into storage.
What’s next is up in the air for a helicopter that proved to be something of a breakthrough for the military’s unmanned aerial systems.
The K-MAX originally was built by Kaman Aerospace as a manned aircraft to be used in logging. Lockheed Martin adapted it for manned or unmanned use—being flown remotely or even autonomously via GPS if given a clear destination—and gave it the ability to haul up to 6,000 pounds at a time. After several years of demonstrations and tests, two of the retrofitted K-MAX helicopters arrived in Afghanistan in November 2011 and one completed that first mission a month later.
At first, the Marines were unsure how well the K-MAX would work out. Drones had proved efficient for surveillance and attack, but logistics support was another story. Some in the military had doubts about whether unmanned systems were suitable for cargo hauling, citing, among other things, the K-MAX’s size (larger than the Apache Longbow attack helicopter) and its load-bearing limits compared with other those of tactical delivery vehicles.
But the K-MAX also had its advantages. It could fly for up to 12 hours at a time, operate day or night and in some weather conditions unsuitable for manned flight, and, importantly, keep Marines and ground vehicles off of IED-littered roads and manned aircraft away from enemy fire. When one K-MAX crashed in June 2013 while making an autonomous delivery, no one was injured. Another K-MAX took its place.
And it proved to be a workhorse. During their stretch in Afghanistan, Defense News reported, the two K-MAX helicopters recently taken out of service flew more than 1,950 sorties for a total of 2.150 flight hours, delivering a total of 4.5 million pounds of cargo.
The Marines in southern Afghanistan appreciated its usefulness and reliability, several times asking that the helicopters’ deployment be extended, eventually until the end of Operation Enduring Freedom. At a conference in June 2013, a Marine officer called the K-MAX, “kind of a rock star of Marine Corps unmanned aviation.”
The military’s effort to use unmanned helicopters for various tasks goes back to the early 1960s and has a history peppered with crashes and dropped programs, as Medium reports. But as drone technology improves, the Marines and other services expect to make more use of them. The Marines in Afghanistan, despite that 2013 crash, grew to have faith in the K-MAX. Now they just have to decide what to do with it next.
Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.