The U.S. Marine Corps has indefinitely extended service for its autonomous K-MAX aircraft, an unmanned cargo helicopter that can fly with or without a pilot and deliver up to 6,000-pounds of supplies to forward-positioned soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan, service officials said.
Two K-MAX helicopters have been in Afghanistan hauling cargo since November 2011 in response to a request from ground commanders.
There is no formal requirement as of yet, and no official decision has been made regarding its future and the potential for it to become a program of record.
“This is fielded as a military utility assessment that has operational value in theater. So what we do is on every flight we bring data back and put together reports to Marine Corps leadership,” said Eric Pratson, team lead for the cargo UAS program.
The K-MAX has transported a range of supplies from mine-roller equipment to generators to ammunition to medical supplies and even mail, said Navy Capt. Patrick Smith, program manager for the Multi-Mission Tactical Unmanned Air Systems.
So for the record haul for the K-MAX was 30,000 pounds over six mission for one day, officials said.
Marine officials explained the importance of having an unmanned aircraft to deliver supplies in the midst of a firefight. Often times, a commander will have to determine if he can send a manned aircraft to send supplies to a unit taking direct fire. Sending a drone makes the decision easier.
“We received a last minute call to go fly a palate of 60-mm mortar rounds of ammunition into an LZ that had been receiving direct and indirect fire for the previous couple days and they were down to less than 24-hour supply of ammunition,” explained Marine Corps Maj. Daniel E. Lindblom, operations officer for Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 3. “The support unit was so happy that they ordered another re-supply of 40mm ammo the next night. We executed the mission with short notice both times.”
The K-MAX operates by flying to GPS waypoints that Marines and Lockheed Martin contractors enter into the computer as part of a flight plan, Pratson said.
“We also have a line-of-sight and beyond-line-of-sight data link which gives us the ability to change direction in flight. We call it dynamic re-tasking, so if there is a situation where we have to go a different way into an LZ or come home a different way, we can dynamically re-task the air vehicle,” he explained.