Cargo UAV hopes brighten as Marines extend K-MAX

Cargo UAV hopes brighten as Marines extend K-MAX

The Marines are going to keep flying Lockheed Martin’s K-MAX unmanned cargo helicopter in Afghanistan for two more months than they’d originally planned, the company said Wednesday, in what could be a positive sign for the future of pilotless battlefield hauling.

Commanders’ original plan was to fly the K-MAX until the end of June, but now they’re going to keep it in Afghanistan until the end of September, pushing it to the close of the fiscal year. The helicopters are setting records for the still-new unmanned cargo delivery game — the two that have been flying since last December have delivered a total of more than one million pounds of stuff, Lockheed said.

Company officials have been eager to play up the potential for more, ever more K-MAXes in service with more customers. Even Lockheed’s statement Wednesday quoted K-MAX’s Marine boss in theater as hinting that he could use more than two:


“K-MAX has proven its value to us in-theater, enabling us to safely deliver cargo to forward areas,” said Marine Corps Maj. Kyle O’Connor, who is overseeing the deployment. “We are moving cargo without putting any Marines, soldiers or airmen at risk. If we had a fleet of these things flying 24–7, we could move cargo around and not put people in jeopardy.”

Odds are good that Lockheed could be persuaded to make a deal along those lines. Still, the company has its eye on bigger game — the Army. The problem is, the Army still seems mostly lukewarm about K-MAX.

You’ve read here where Lockheed officials say they’re in informal talks with the Army about potential modifications for a theoretical green K-MAX, and how the Army brass says it’s watching the Marines’ experiments closely, but so far, that hasn’t translated into a deal for Lockheed.

It’s difficult to tell whether the expiration date on a potential Army resupply deal may have already passed: American combat troops are supposed to remain in Afghanistan until 2014, and some forces — maybe as many as 20,000 — could stay there for a decade after. They’ll be moving around the country just as troops do today, and a K-MAX-style resupply system might make sense. Then again, if American troops dismantle their spider’s web of distant outposts and bases as the withdrawal continues, there may not be any need for a small helicopter to avoid roadside bombs and bad roads.

Either way, Lockheed will probably keep up its sales pitch for as long as it can.

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The real litmus test to watch for is robo-K-Max being certified for unmanned operations from the flight decks of the USNS Lewis and Clark (T-AKE-1) class of selective offload dry cargo ships.

If robo-K-Max succeeds at that, then robo-K-Max could be useful for unmanned resupply directly from a seabase, otherwise robo-K-Max won’t be very useful to the Marines after they leave Afghanistan.

Supposedly the Marines are going to refocus on expeditionary amphibious operations from a seabase.

Marines operating from a seabase, flying from ship direct to objective, will also likely be resupplied by helicopter from a selective offload cargo ship located at/near the seabase, augmented with para-drops from fixed wing cargo aircraft operating from runways much further away. The class of cargo ships capable of selective offload is the USNS Lewis and Clark (T-AKE-1). To be useful to the Marines post-Afghanistan, robo-K-Max needs to operate unmanned from that class of ships.

We had the manned version (one pilot) of KMax on-board the USS Carl Vinson back in the mid-90’s, it would do a lot of the vert-reps along side the –46. Back then the paint scheme was a darker blue, with a white stripe along the side of the helo.

Its a good little UAV chopper this is a investment that works hope they get more of them.

could the marines waste more money?
new 53Ks, Ospreys, 1Ys and they still need ANOTHER rotary wing?
Krulak is dead. the marines make the AF look frugal at this point.

The K-max is the most frugal way to lift cargo. It does not set records for max payload. It sets them for least lb/hr fuel burned per lb of cargo. Oh and yes a UAV converted K-max could easily be configured for ship based landings.

We did K-Max testing on the Big E (CVN-65) in 1995. It was flying cargo on/off cargo ships then as a manned platform, single pilot. I wrote the test report to AIRLANT.

It was a fine small helicopter. However, it had many drawbacks. It was VFR only, which was a major limitation for a Navy that operated in all sea states and weather conditions. The interlocking rotor system was dangerous to flight deck personnel, as you could approach it only from front/back, which was different than other helos. It also could not lift large engines.

In short, it was a helicopter that could do things other helicopters could do, but not as well, and not in the same weather.

As I recall, Kamen was trying to sell it as a contractor run cargo operation to work on the civilian run tankers and cargo ships. It had been flying for around a decade back then and hadn’t sold a single platform.

Just goes to show…repackage and remarketing sometimes work. I suspect it will be fine as long as their control package was set up to minimize interference. The aircraft itself was fine for underway ops.

Lets see. State the obvious. V-22 already is FBW(computer controlled) with Autopilot able to land the sucker. It also has the lift capacity to be actually useful along with the high altitude capability to go fairly far with speed. Why the Hell would anyone want a tiny very limited crappy cargo hauler?

It makes a lot of sense and is worth it because it limits the risk of pilots and it gives the guys on the ground the ability to get more supplies while under heavy fire.

Because it’s cheaper, safer, and cheaper.

You don’t have to provide a pilot or use a lot of room to accomodate one. This leaves maximum lifting capability. No pilot means no fatigue. No pilot means no risk. Meaning we don’t need to mount an expensive and time consuming, dangerous, mission to retrieve the pilot if he’s shot down.

If you get shot down operating a UAV like this then it sucks and you bite your nails over how you’re going to write the report and maybe take some heat for it. But you’re alive and able to log on to another UAV. No sweat.

I imagine the gas bill is cheap. Probably as simple as a WW2 Jeep to work on. Minimal downtime.

This gives the Corps another edge for mobility. Save the other helo’s for lifting troops and heavy duty items. Let the unmanned helos handle the light to medium stuff.

Three cheers for an unmanned future!

Autopilot and unmanned flight have nothing to do with each other. The KMAX is strictly a cargo aircraft so speed isn’t that big of a factor. It hauls a couple thousand pounds. For routine food, water, fuel, and ammo to small units that’s not an insignificant amount. The cost/hour is a lot less than a V-22 which saves on maintenance costs, downtime, life of the airframe, and frees up the V-22 to do air assaults and other operational requirements.

Auto pilot and unmanned flight have everything to do with each other. Without an computer controlled autopilot you cannot have an unmanned aircraft. To make an autopilot aircraft into an UAV requires only the addition of a command data link.

V-22 can resupply 18 squads or more via its rolling pallet system and therefore doesn’t have to land like the this new rotary platform. It can use its STOL capability, this tilts and dumps the pallet in question. If V-22 takes off from a semi improved runway, allowing STOL operation, it can haul 20,000lbs. Say from a central logistics point. A very likely event.

Additionally from logistics command perspective they have part commonality for maintenance and reliability rates. Keeping parts on the shelf for 30 years is no small feat.

I’ll take speed and payload with platform commonality with dual function instead of a lightweight platform with little ability to sustain combat damage.

Except there isn’t much light or medium stuff to transport to start with. I think this is more of a purchaser trying to find a role instead of a role finding the appropriate platform.

Check out Vietnam and its reliance of boots on ground. It wasn’t just one or two squads independently needing resupply. It was a whole host of squads, platoons needing resupply. Its far worse in the Army’s eyes. It needs heavy supply as they are more garrison duty and major offensives.

I’ll take a platform with a rear door with a roller floor for pallets, otherwise we are all wasting our money. Now upthread I postulated the V-22. If you don’t like this, fine, but a resupply platform without a rear door for quick loading and unloading seems brain dead if you asked me.

The army needs something larger than the V-22. They would prefer something closer to the CH-53. I certainly don’t see them obtaining a platform SMALLER than the CH-60 or V-22!

What the Army really wants is something the Russians have had for nearly 30 years now. The MIL-26 helicopter able to run around 20tons. Bet the JTLV will determine the next transport craft purchase. They kinda go hand in hand for the army anyways.

Several points
As to VFR only operations, Duh, no pilot! The control system doesn’t need visible light to operate.
The KMAX does not need to land. It is far quicker to deliver sling loads than internal loads, and safer due to shorter exposure times in the LZ.
Yes, a V22 will carry enough supplies for several units. BUT, it doesn’t do a platoon or squad on patrol any good to get 20,000 pounds of supplies. The KMAX can carry 6,000 pounds, and using multiple hooks can drop just the load need to the area needed.
Cost is becoming a more important metric. Would you care to be the V-22 squadron CO who has to explain the loss of a 55 million dollar aircraft and priceless crew or a supply type who reports a five million dollar KMAX lost?
And,if the military was interested in delivering 20,000 pound loads it is far more effective to use the proven and available CH-47F.

Too many replies are off topic. This article is about the K-MAX being evaluated in Afghanistan. While it has exceeded the expectations/requirements chances are due to budgetary restrictions these two aircraft will be the only ones used by the USN/USMC. They will probably be continued to be used under lease until the USMC pulls out of Afghanistan since the Army appears to be uninterested. Is this the best tool for the selected job? Yes. Is this the best tool for every job? No. When heavier loads or troops are required or delivery is time critical select another tool (H-47, H-53, H-60, V-22, ground convoy). As for shipboard use, that’s another topic.

In one regard you are right and in anther wrong. You don’t have a single patrols out. You have numerous patrols out. Likewise you don’t buy hardware for essentially peace time operating conditions. Which is what this platform discussion is about. It is a failure from that perspective IMO. I also realize logistics aren’t a sexy topic. I do believe they are probably the most important though after training that is.

On the one hand one needs a small resupply(Ammo, water, food or 100lbs/day), on the other hand one needs major supply. The KMax is in between and quite frankly not any smaller than existing platforms that already exist. The Huey for instance. Tweener platforms are never truly economical. If one really wants economical, go with an even smaller platform that truly is VERY CHEAP and does not matter if it is lost. Otherwise buy larger platforms that have far greater capability and a multirole use. Half baked systems generally fall flat.

BS. Most frugal is using existing platforms that have the same payload and oh by the way fly faster. They are called UH-1’s.

Quit wasting money.

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