Lockheed Martin is preparing for the deployment of two unmanned Kaman K-Max helicopters to Afghanistan this month to begin operating a six month trial resupplying US Marine Corps forward operating bases there.
The contract was awarded earlier this month to Lockheed Martin ahead of Boeing’s competing Hummingbird unmanned helicopter, after a five day evaluation of the K-Max from Yuma, Arizona, during the northern summer.
“The mission is essentially a flying truck, the objective is to take convoys off the road,” Roger II Grande, director of airborne systems for Lockheed Martin’s Mission Systems & Sensors business unit, told Australian media on October 27.
The helicopter, originally developed by Kaman as an aerial crane for roles such as logging and power-line installations, can lift up to 2725kg on its external hook. Powered by a derated 1350shp Honeywell (Lycoming) T53, it features contra-rotating rotors and Kaman’s signature servo tabs.
Unmanned, the K-Max will be controlled by a pilot from a ground control system, which can control the helicopter to within 10 metres accuracy. Lockheed Martin developed both the K-Max’s unmanned control avionics and ground control station system (which uses ruggedised laptops).
“I hate to say it, [unmanned] it lifts better loads better than I can,” Lockheed Martin flight test pilot, Jerry McCawley said.
The pilot seat remains in the K-Max so it can be flown optionally manned if necessary, and indeed Il Grande said that feature was key to its quick and successful development program as a pilot could intervene should the aircraft experience problems during flight testing, meaning no aircraft were lost during testing (a common occurrence for unmanned systems) and that the unmanned control software could be re-written more quickly.
The helicopters – zero-timed former civil K-Max airframes – will be government owned but contractor operator for the Afghanistan trial. Should the trial be successful Lockheed Martin and Kaman could deliver further refurbished K-Maxes within a six month timeframe, while new build aircraft could be delivered one year after order (the K-Max is currently out of production).
Most K-Max resupply missions are expected to be flown at night to minimise its vulnerability to small arms fire and rocket propelled grenades. As well as its aerodynamic efficiency for lifting, the contra-rotating system has another advantage in a combat environment, said McCawley, in its low noise signature.
So far, Australia has not shown any official interest in the K-Max capability, according to Il Grande.