The US Marine Corps (USMC) has concluded a two-and-a-half year deployment to Afghanistan of two K-MAX unmanned cargo helicopters but have no immediate plans to begin a cargo unmanned aircraft system (UAS) programme of record, officials said on 24 July.
Captain Patrick Smith, the US Navy's (USN's) Cargo UAS programme manager, praised the performance of the aircraft and its operators. They "excelled beyond anything I thought possible," he said during a teleconference with reporters.
The Lockheed Martin Kaman K-MAX helcopters were deployed to south-central Afghanistan in December 2011. Since then, they have flown nearly 2,000 sorties during the course of more than 2,150 flight hours and have delivered more than 4.5 million lb (2.04 million kg) of cargo. The final sorties were flown on 30 May before the systems were returned to a Lockheed Martin facility in Owego, New York for storage.
According to Capt Smith, the USN wants to conduct additional K-MAX demonstrations next year in order to help the USMC as it develops concepts of operations for a UAS cargo system programme of record. He added that the effort is continuing through a formal requirements process so that "a concise and achievable set of requirements can go forward".
Capt Smith said an unmanned cargo asset will allow the USMC's heavy-lift helicopter, the Sikorsky CH-53, to "focus on different priorities".
Marine Major Kyle O'Connor, the officer who led the K-MAX efforts in Afghanistan with Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron One, said the aircraft were flown primarily at night with their lights out to avoid any potential kinetic threat. He said he was less concerned about more sophisticated threats such as electronic warfare or cyber attacks on data links.
K-MAX and other systems are participating in exploratory efforts such as the Office of Naval Research's Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System (AACUS) and the army's Autonomous Technologies for Unmanned Air Systems (ATUAS) programmes.
Another serious contender for the Pentagon's unmanned rotorcraft dollars is Sikorsky with its autonomous Black Hawk. The company, a division of United Technologies, announced recently that it plans to develop retired UH-60A Black Hawk helicopters into multirole optionally piloted systems based on its Matrix autonomous technology. It is also working with Carnegie Mellon's National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) and the US Army to demonstrate an optionally manned UH-60MU, fitted with Matrix technology, to fly the NREC's Land Tamer unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) into a 'contaminated threat environment', deploy the UGV so it can map out the area, and then co-ordinate its extraction by the Black Hawk.
Lockheed Martin similarly worked with the army to demonstrate reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition missions with K-MAX delivering its Squad Mission Support System UGV into a threatening environment.