In late May, Kaman Aerospace announced that it had received a $2.9 million contract from the U.S. Army’s Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center (AMRDEC) to further refine its Unmanned K-Max heavylift helicopter for potential theater operations. The contract comes hot on the heels of two successful demonstrations of the Unmanned K-Max for both the army and the U.S. Marine Corps.
Both services have identified a possible requirement for an unmanned system to deliver cargo and supplies around the battlefield. This need has arisen from experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, where manned assets are often overstretched. Therefore, out of necessity, many supplies are being moved by road, where they are vulnerable to insurgent attack via improvised explosive devices and ambushes.
Getting the trucks off the road is seen as a key means by which the alarming rate of friendly casualties can be reduced. Using an unmanned air system as a means of delivery not only greatly reduces exposure to fire, but is considerably cheaper than using manned helicopters.
In March 2007, Lockheed Martin joined forces with Kaman to offer an unmanned version of the K-Max commercial logging helicopter, which can carry slung loads of up to 6,000 pounds at sea level. Within Team K-Max, Lockheed Martin supplies the mission management system.
Last August, under the auspices of the U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, contracts were issued to Lockheed Martin and Boeing to demonstrate a near-term unmanned cargo delivery solution under the “Immediate Cargo UAS” banner. Boeing employed its A160T Hummingbird unmanned rotorcraft for the demonstration, which was conducted at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, where the terrain approximates that of Afghanistan.
Team K-Max took N131KA–its unmanned demonstrator–to Utah for three days in January, and Boeing followed in March. The marines had identified a desirable capability of delivering between 10,000 and 20,000 pounds to a location 75 miles away in a 24-hour period, a capacity reflected in the demonstration by a 2,500-pound transfer in six hours. Team K-Max actually achieved more than 3,000 pounds in five hours, and also demonstrated a required hover with a 1,500-pound load at 12,000 feet. Also displayed were night capability, autonomous and remote-controlled flight, mid-flight retasking and multi-drop capability. Separately, the Unmanned K-Max demonstrated flight cruise at 17,300 feet with a 1,500-pound load.
Perhaps the highlight of the trials involved the Unmanned K-Max carrying four loads totaling 3,450 pounds on its company-developed carousel load-carrying system. Three loads were deposited autonomously at different locations, demonstrating accuracy within the 10-meter limits, while the fourth drop demonstrated the ability of a controller to remotely and precisely direct the K-Max from the ground.
Following the success at Dugway, Team K-Max conducted a series of airdrop trials in April at its Bloomfield facility in Connecticut. In partnership with the U.S. Army’s Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC), Team K-Max undertook 11 airdrops of cargo from altitudes ranging from 150 to 300 feet. The drops used the army’s standard low-altitude cross parachute, which can handle loads of between 80 and 600 pounds. In one of the demonstrations, the Unmanned K-Max released four separate loads from the carousel system. Following these successful trials, Team K-Max and the army are studying the employment of the Joint Precision AirDrop System (JPADS) for airdrops from greater altitudes.