A new drone will be deployed into the war-zone next month in Afghanistan – the K-MAX helicopter. Kaman Aerospace and Lockheed Martin’s joint heavy-lift helicopter will be used to deliver up to 6,000 lbs of cargo daily for the Navy and U.S. Marine Corps. The two companies paired in 2007 to develop the K-MAX helicopter – originally a one-manned, piloted aircraft – into an unmanned vehicle. The manned version of the helicopter has accumulated over 255,000 flight hours since 1994 according to Lockheed Martin’s website.
As the unmanned version of the K-MAX has had to reach several milestones before it could be deployed in a battle zone. According to Lockheed Martin, in both April and November 2008, the unmanned K-MAX performed 45 minutes of operation at Ft. Eustis, Virginia, and Quantico, VA, respectively. During these tests, the K-MAX performed autonomous take-off and landing, pick-up and delivery of a 3,000 lb sling load, and the ability to detour the vehicle in the middle of a flight to accommodate mission changes. In July 2009, the K-MAX performed at higher altitudes (up to 15,000 ft) in the Colorado Rockies lifting 3,000 lb loads. In November and December 2009, the K-MAX performed at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, flying in restricted air space and carrying various loads at altitudes up to 15,000 ft. Night operations were also performed with cargo drops beyond the line of sight.
In January 2010, the U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory oversaw the successful demonstration of the K-MAX helicopter to deliver cargo at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. The K-MAX successfully hovered at an altitude of 12,000 ft carrying a 1,500 lb cargo load. It was also shown the that K-MAX unmanned system was capable of delivering 3,000 lbs of cargo within a six-hour requirement on two 150 nautical mile round-trip flights. Pilots were also able to demonstrate its performance under remote control. In April 2010, the K-MAX team showed that the unmanned system could resupply troops by airdropping cargo with a parachute. A total of 11 cargo drops were performed from 300 – 400 ft above the ground, and during a single flight it performed four airdrops. In November 2010, the K-MAX heli-basket system was demonstrated to transport an all-terrain vehicle at the Kaman Bloomfield, Connecticut facility.
The most recent milestones occurred in 2011. In January 2011, the unmanned K-MAX completed multiple guided airdrops with 16 payloads. The most recent test in August 2011 demonstrated the unmanned system’s ability to perform under a five-day Quick Reaction Assessment. This milestone marked the final major test phase prior to deployment to the battlefield. The U.S. Navy plans to field an unmanned cargo system for a six-month deployment and the K-MAX has established itself as the unmanned system for the important job of supporting our troops.