WASHINGTON: The proposition can’t be proven yet, but it’s likely some Marines in Afghanistan who might have been killed or wounded since mid-December by roadside bombs, aka IEDs, are alive and well today thanks to an experimental unmanned helicopter the Corps is testing.
Between Dec. 17 and Jan. 12, two remotely piloted but largely automated Lockheed Martin/Kaman K-MAX unmanned helicopters flew 94 sorties and delivered 155,080 lbs. of Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), water and other items to various Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) in Helmand province.
“What’s significant (about that) is the amount of convoys that takes off the road,” Lt. Col. Brad “Myrtle” Beach, Marine Corps unmanned aerial systems coordinator, said last week in a presentation to the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).
The K-MAX, normally manned and largely used for civilian timber operations, is a 5,100-lb. helicopter built by Kaman Helicopters whose two counter-rotating rotor blades eliminate the need for a tail rotor, preserving engine power for the main rotors. Consequently, at sea level the K-MAX can lift nearly 1,000 lbs. more than its own weight. Modified by Lockheed for unmanned operation, the K-MAX beat out Boeing Co.’s far lighter A160 Hummingbird (2,500 lbs. empty) last summer for the privilege of flying experimental drone cargo missions in Afghanistan.
The test deployment in Helmand province, where flying conditions include high altitudes, hot temperatures and dusty landing zones that are especially hard on rotorcraft, is to last six months. If it goes well, the Marines expect to establish a “program of record” to develop an unmanned cargo helicopter.
The requirements for such an aircraft aren’t yet set but Beach’s presentation offered a “notional” list that included shipboard capability, the ability to lift multiple loads exceeding 1,600 lbs., speed “potentially approaching” 250 knots and a range of 300 nautical miles. The 250 knot speed requirement — far faster than any current military helicopter can fly — will likely have to be reduced significantly if the Marines want to move ahead quickly with such a program.
The requirements for the test program the K-MAX won were to lift at least 750 lbs. per flight and deliver 6,000 lbs. of cargo within 24 hours over 100 nautical miles at 12,000-ft. density altitude, meaning the effective altitude when temperature and other factors affecting air pressure are taken into account.
Northrop Grumman recently told Breaking Defense the company would like to offer a new and larger version of its MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter if the Marines pursue a new unmanned cargo helicopter. The MQ-8C Fire-X uses the airframe of a Bell 407 civilian helicopter rather than the smaller Schweizer 300 airframe used by the Fire Scout.
“I’m really excited about where this is going,” Beach told AUVSI. “The first few points that we learned within probably the first three weeks is, they (Marines) love getting things at these forward operating bases. They love it even more if you take stuff away. They’ve got engines, they’ve got gear that’s no longer serviceable. That is going to become more and more part of the convoy mission. If that prevents another convoy having to go out and get that gear, then we’re winning.”