by DAVID AXE
A Lockheed Martin executive has confirmed the U.S. Army’s interest in a version of the company’s K-MAX robot supply helicopter, currently in testing by the Marine Corps. “One thing we are continuing to work on and move forward with is taking pilots out of aircraft,” Aviation Systems Vice President Dan Spoor told a New York newspaper.
Designed and produced by Kaman, the twin-rotor K-MAX began as a manned helicopter for cargo and firefighting duties. Lockheed teamed with Kaman to add servos and radios for remote control via satellite. In 2009 the Marine Corps selected the Lockheed-Kaman team to develop the pilotless K-MAX for military resupply missions.
The spread of deadly Improvised Explosive Devices spurred the development.
“The need came about because the Marine Corps wanted to get trucks off the road,” said Maj. Kyle O’Connor, a drone detachment commander. “They wanted to be able to deliver supplies from one locale to another without putting Marines in danger of IEDs.”
After field trials in late 2011, in November of that year the Marines deployed two robotic K-MAXs to southern Afghanistan under O’Connor’s command. That deployment has been extended to March 2013. By August the K-MAXs had flown nearly 500 missions, mostly at night in order to avoid detection. The K-MAX can carry up to 5,500 pounds 250 miles at 80 knots.
The K-MAX demo is likely to result in a production order for large numbers of robot helicopters for the Marine Corps. The Army’s interest has grown in parallel with the Marines’. Like the Corps, the Army has suffered heavily from IEDs.
Equally, the Army is eager to deploy aircraft that do not risk pilots’ lives. During intensive battles in Afghanistan, the Army has been unable to send in resupply and medical-evacuation helicopters because of heavy ground fire that risks killing or injuring the flight crews.
The Army has come under scrutiny for delaying a Blackhawk medical helicopter 30 minutes after Army Spec. Chazray Clark was injured in Afghanistan in October 2011. The delay stemmed from the Army’s policy of requiring an armed gunship to escort all medical helicopters in a combat zone. The gunships are often in short supply. Clark died of his wounds soon after the Blackhawk picked him up.
A robotic helicopter such as K-MAX could give the Army more options, as it does not put aircrew in harm’s way. Lockheed is counting on it.