Two Kaman K-Max Aerial Trucks configured for unmanned operation are being prepared for delivery this summer to meet the urgent resupply requirements of U.S. Marine Corps troops in Afghanistan.
Developed by Kaman Helicopters and Lockheed Martin, the unmanned K-Max is expected to free widely dispersed and overextended aviation personnel and equipment for other demanding missions. Meanwhile, the pilotless K-Max will reduce aircrew vulnerability to hostile action and exposure of supply operations to roadside IED attacks.
Sal Bordonaro, Kaman Helicopters division president, said achievement of operational unmanned helicopter flight fulfills a long-held goal of the late Charles Kaman. “Back in 1953 Charlie demonstrated pilotless helicopter flight on the television show ‘You Asked For It.’ His perseverance over the years inspired our progress on getting prepared to achieve unmanned K-Max flight.”
Kaman Helicopters began working toward unmanned Aerial Truck operation in 1998. This led to a December 2010 contract to meet the U.S. Marine Corps requirement for pilotless ship-to-shore resupply.
The pilotless Aerial Truck has demonstrated a 150–nm radius of action carrying one-ton loads. It can dispense four loads at four different locations, while burning 50 percent less fuel than manned helicopters with the same cargo-carrying capacity.
The K-Max, Bordonaro pointed out, is the only helicopter that can lift more than its own empty weight. With an empty weight slightly more than 5,000 pounds, it can carry sling loads up to 6,000 pounds. The K-Max can be quickly shifted between piloted and unmanned operations through removal and replacement of remote control equipment.
“It will take some time” for the unmanned Aerial Truck to migrate into civil use, said Bordonaro, adding that he thinks it will prove valuable in remote areas delivering humanitarian aid, supporting energy exploration, in firefighting and in support of offshore oil production.
Separately, Kaman serves U.S. helicopter forces by providing Hontek erosion protection to the main and tail rotor blades of Army UH-60 Black Hawks deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, where sand, dust and other airborne particulates pose a major threat to blade longevity.
Bare or taped blades may require direct maintenance per flight hour of from $50 to $250 per hour, depending on the severity of the erosion environment, while blades with Kaman’s protective multi-layer coating generate maintenance costs from $11 to $20 per flight hour.
Kaman, the only U.S. company certified to apply the Hontek coatings, operates a blade coating facility as part of its HeliworX subcontracting unit in Bloomfield, Conn.
Bordonaro noted that Kaman continues to expand its subcontracting activities from the unique position of both a helicopter OEM and major subcontractor to other aerospace firms. “Diversity is the key,” he said, explaining that the company seeks to balance OEM and contract work and civil and military business.
In building its subcontracting capacity Kaman recently acquired an aerospace design firm near Boeing’s Seattle facilities, adding 170 design and stress engineers. It has also acquired a composite fabrication and tooling facility in the UK, just opened a manufacturing center in Chihuahua, Mexico, and expanded its aerostructure production capabilities in Jacksonville, Fla. These, Bordonaro said, are strategic steps toward becoming a worldwide comprehensive design-build organization.