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After a decade of sending vulnerable, manpower-intensive, fuel-guzzling ground convoys to resupply troops at far-flung combat outposts in Iraq and Afghanistan—and seeing those convoys consistently ambushed, blown up or just delayed—the U.S. Marine Corps had had enough. So, on Dec. 17, 2011, the Corps for the first time delivered supplies to troops using a remotely piloted helicopter.
Dispatched from Camp Dwyer to deliver supplies to Marines at Combat Outpost Payne in Helmand province, the flight delivered 3,500 lb. of food and other supplies, and took about 90 min. to complete, according to officials. But more than the supply drop itself, the flight ranks as a significant moment in a wartime technology boom that has made battlefield advances in unmanned technologies seem almost commonplace.
The Marines have been working on unmanned cargo for several years, and the Corps and the Army have been testing options since at least early 2008. The platform that won all of the Marine competitions and is now flying in Afghanistan is Kaman’s manned dual-rotor K-MAX helicopter, which was outfitted by Lockheed Martin with mission management and control systems for less than $47 million under a 2010 award. After years of testing and then charging its way through a five-day Quick Reaction Assessment (QRA) for the U.S. Navy’s Cargo Unmanned Aircraft Systems program, two unmanned helos were sent to Afghanistan in October 2011.
According to the Navy, which shares a U.S. military department with the Marines, during the QRA in the U.S. the K-MAX was able to exceed the Navy and Marines’ requirement to deliver 6,000 lb. of cargo per day over a five-day period, lugging a total of 33,400 lb. of cargo and topping out at about 3,500 lb. delivered in a single mission. Plus, with its four-hook carousel, K-MAX also can supply multiple locations in one flight.
Maj. Kyle O’Connor, the officer in charge of the unmanned mission in Afghanistan, says that while K-MAX is now considered operational, the Corps is still in a “demonstration phase to test the true capabilities of this aircraft and how well it can perform its job in a combat environment.” The Marines will continue to collect data through midyear, and once they analyze how effectively the aircraft performed its mission they will make the decision whether to make it a program of record. Operationally, it appears as if most of the K-MAX’s missions will be flown at night and at high altitudes to stay above the range of small-arms fire, according to Navy information.
While it made it to the finish line first, the K-MAX certainly will not be the last unmanned aircraft to deliver supplies to troops in the field. In early assessments, the Navy looked at Boeing’s A160 Hummingbird for Afghanistan, although the K-MAX’s ability to carry heavier loads up to 360 km (224 mi.) eventually won the day. The Hummingbird, however, remains a viable option. And in August 2011 the Army awarded the Lockheed Martin/Kaman team a $47 million deal while officials wrap up a larger study on a full range of unmanned cargo options.
The Army also has said that it is using a “hybrid-type acquisition approach” in developing a vertical-takeoff-and-landing Unmanned Aerial System (VTOL-UAS) program that will include a cargo role. The deployment will help the service build a program of record for a VTUAV, which will be a full and open competition for to all bidders.
Finally, another company interested is Textron’s AAI. Steve Reid, senior vice president and general manager of AAI Unmanned Aircraft Systems, says the company has signed a license agreement with Carter Aviation for a manned, four-person rotary-winged asset that Textron is converting into an unmanned vehicle the company believes “would do the cargo mission that’s being talked about” quite nicely. The Navy has also been busy with other unmanned options, including awarding Northrop Grumman a contract in September to supply 28 MQ-8C Fire Scout VTOL-UAS’s (based on Bell’s 407 helicopter airframe), which the company has touted for its cargo-lugging capabilities.
Elsewhere, the Office of Naval Research has unveiled the Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System, a five-year, $98 million effort to develop sensors and control technologies for aircraft. Says Mary “Missy” Cummings, program officer for AACUS, “We want to turn any helicopter into a logistics machine.”