The U.S. Marine Corps has extended Lockheed Martin’s contract to operate two K-Max unmanned helicopters in Afghanistan into next year. Operating there since December 2011, the converted Kaman cargo-lifting machines have demonstrated a 97-percent operational availability, according to Lockheed Martin. The company hopes that either the Marines or the U.S. Army will create a formal program of record for the K-Max, for at least one unit operating six helicopters.
According to George Barton, a business development vice president for LM Mission Systems and Training, the K-Max has met the Marines’ objective of getting vital supplies to forward operating bases at lower risk, more quickly and with less manpower than by truck. “The K-Max goes where no one else goes, including at night and in weather,” he told AIN. He said that the helicopter can fly at up to 15,000 feet and lift its own weight (6,000 pounds). The two helicopters moved a total of three million pounds in a 15-month period, he added.
The concept of operations has been refined during the deployment, Barton noted. For example, the operators are now allowed to hook and unhook loads while the K-Max is in the hover. Automatic load pick-ups have also been demonstrated. The helicopter can now fly to new locations that have not been pre-programmed, with the ground controller using a beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) feed from the video camera mounted above the cockpit and between the rotors. Barton described a number of potential upgrades to the system, including compliance with the Stanag 4586 for ground control; a second BLOS datalink; and a Lidar for obstacle avoidance and selection of drop zones.