K-Max Leaps From Unmanned to Autonomous Operations

 - August 24, 2020, 2:30 AM
Near Earth depiction of autonomous K-Max evaluating a landing zone.

Kaman's K-Max helicopter is making the leap from unmanned to autonomous operations as Near Earth Autonomy and Kaman Aerospace, with support from Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), have developed an intelligent autonomy system for the aircraft helicopter. The new system builds on previous work that began in 2014 as the autonomous aerial cargo utility system project and continued on small and medium-sized vehicles under the joint capability technology demonstration military program.

Near Earth says it has demonstrated that one architecture can work across a wide range of different aircraft types and sizes. Using sensors and onboard computing, the aircraft senses its environment to make real-time flight decisions, including flying around objects and selecting landing/drop zones.

The technology has military and civilian applications, including cargo delivery and urban air mobility. “This program will serve as an important milestone in making autonomous logistics a reality,” said Near Earth CEO Sanjiv Singh. “Our past efforts laid a strong foundation for solving complex autonomy challenges for small, medium, and large vehicles.”

Near Earth’s technology allows aircraft to autonomously take off, fly, and land safely, with or without GPS, and can be applied to aircraft ranging in size from small drones to full-size helicopters. The company’s work won the 2018 Howard Hughes Award, given for outstanding improvements in fundamental helicopter technology, and was a 2017 finalist for the Collier Trophy. 

Kaman previously deployed a pair of unmanned K-Max with the U.S. Marine Corps in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2014 and more recently announced its intention to deliver unmanned technology kits for existing K-Max owners and buyers of new-build helicopters beginning next year.