Update: The Marines Want Cargo-UAS Now

Next Month, Unmanned K-MAX to Begin Operations in Afghanistan. Photo: Lockheed Martin

While DARPA’s dream of TX Transformers hopping supplies and personnel through the sky, avoiding roadside IEDs and ambushes, the Marines in Afghanistan need a solution now. In August the Second Marine Expeditionary Brigade (II MEB) published the requirements for C-UAS, following the Joint Urgent Operational Need (JUON) issue by the Marine Corps earlier, following the evaluation of several systems in early 2010. Due to the urgency of the mission the Marines are seeking a mature, autonomous, aerial cargo transport platform. For the actual deployment in Asia the corps plans to award six month contracts to civilian contractors who will operate and maintain the C-UAS in forward operating bases of the II MEB in Southern Afghanistan. In parallel, the U.S. Army is also considering using C-UAV to relieve manned helicopters from flying resupply missions but the Army requirements are not fully defined yet. It is anticipated that once introduced in theater, such assets could also be employed for other missions, for example, route clearing and IED sweeps along roads.

Lockheed Martin and Kaman are also competing on the U.S. Marine C-UAS program, proposing the manner/unmanned capable K-Max helicopter from Kaman. Photo: Lockheed Martin
In March 2010 Boeing demonstrated the capability of its A-160T to transfer more than 2,000 pounds of cargo, addressing an urgent requirement raised by the Marines. Photo: Boeing.

Both A160T from Boeing and the unmanned K-MAX proposed by Kaman – Lockheed-Martin team have demonstrated their cargo transport capabilities. Eventually, other unmanned rotary-wing aircraft could join the service – one option could be the Fire-X from Northrop Grumman, an unmanned version of the Bell-407 (Fire-X) which will soon make its maiden flight.

Supporting forestry in the U.S. since 1994 with the manned K-MAX helicopter, the unmanned version offers the largest payload lift capability among all three (up to 6,000 lbs at sea level or 4,300 pounds at 15,000 feet.) A single K-MAX often moves more than one-million pounds of timber in a single day, and has exceeded two-million pounds in a single day on numerous occasions. The K-MAX producer Kaman is currently developing autonomous pick-up technologies that will allow the Unmanned K-MAX to attach loads without human intervention. The development will also provide for pin-point delivery as determined by the soldier on the ground.

The demonstration flights at Yuma highlighted flight scenarios demonstrated the platform’s ability to at 12,000 ft. density altitude with a 1,500-pound sling load; deliver 3,000 pounds of cargo over a 150 nm round trip to a forward operating base within six-hours, and deliver four loads totaling 3,450 pounds in a single flight to four separate destinations. The vehicles had to demonstrate remotely controlled flight and a precision load delivery, assisted by ground-based operator.

Boeing also demonstrated the MCWL the A160T’s ability to deliver at least 2,500 pounds over the 150 nm round trip. While the A-160T platform has carry less than half the K-MAX’ payload, the Hummingbird managed to haul the weight lifting half the load – a 1,250-pound sling load over two 150-nautical-mile round trips, operating autonomously on a preprogrammed mission. Boeing started A160T production at its helicopter plant in Mesa, Ariz., in March 2010.

At these demonstrations the unmanned K-MAX flew remotely controlled, hovered at an altitude of 12,000 feet with a 1,500-pound sling load, delivered 3,000 pounds of cargo well within the six-hour required timeframe, in two 150 nm round-trip flights, It performed precision load deliveries during day or night, controlled by a ground-based operator. On some missions, new flight plans were uploaded to the aircraft’s mission management system. The K-MAX helicopter employed its four-hook carousel, which enables multi-load deliveries in a single flight. The aircraft also demonstrated cargo dispatching to multiple locations. Employing its four-hook carousel the K-MAX flew to three pre-programmed delivery coordinates, loaded up with 3,450 pounds of cargo, and released a sling load autonomously at each location, delivering the fourth load under manual control by the ground operator. “Airdropping cargo as an option to placing a sling load on the ground can enhance an unmanned aircraft’s survivability while delivering critical supplies in combat environments,” explained Terry Fogarty, Kaman Unmanned Systems general manager.

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