Kaman Aerospace has already received commitments for its first five unmanned K-1200 K-Max helicopter kits for civil operators, according to Romin Dasmalchi, the company’s senior director of business development for government air vehicles. The kits to convert the K-Max into a UAS will be available for both new-build and in-service helicopters. First deliveries are scheduled for next year.
The new kits weigh approximately 200 pounds less than previous versions developed since the 1990s for military applications. Announced civil customers to date include Helicopter Express and Swanson Group Aviation.
Dasmalchi called the conversion of the company’s manned heavy lifter into a civil UAS “very much an evolutionary step” following the deployment of two unmanned K-Max in Afghanistan with the U.S. Marine Corps from 2011 to 2014. As that 33-month deployment changed the nature of how the Marines could conduct logistics supply, Dasmalchi believes it will be similarly disruptive for the civil market.
In Afghanistan, unmanned K-Max operations replaced the activity of more than 900 ground convoys that would have been forced to traverse perilous roads and possible enemy attack. A pair of K-Max moved 4.5 million pounds of cargo during the deployment. For civil operations, Dasmalchi envisions unmanned K-Max missions replacing high-risk manned flights—including night firefighting, offshore re-supply, and power line restoration—and making them beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) and having the ability to dynamically change a mission and/or its location while the aircraft is in flight.
Using a proven platform for unmanned operations has inherent advantages, Dasmalchi noted, pointing out that the K-Max’s simple, dual synchromeshing main rotor design drives reliability with a dispatch rate of greater than 98 percent over the course of 370,000 flight hours since its first flight in 1991. Dasmalchi said that, with an external noise footprint of 82 dB, the K-Max is quieter than its load-slinging peers and “has less environmental impact.” The synchromeshing rotors also produce less vortex beneath the helicopter compared to a conventional design, he said.
As an optionally piloted vehicle, the K-Max can be flown manned to its operational theater and then deployed as a UAS, Dasmalchi added. “With the K-Max, we’re leveraging commercial, off-the-shelf technology. It saves money and weight, and you get better reliability and redundancy.”