Firms Demonstrate Casualty Evacuation with Unmanned Helicopter

One day soon, combat units may evacuate their wounded from the battlefield with the help of unmanned aircraft.

In late March, three defense firms worked together to conduct the first casualty evacuation using a KMAX unmanned cargo helicopter, according to Lockheed Martin.

The U.S. Marine Corps relied on the unmanned KMAX from 2011 to 2014 to conduct resupply operations, delivering more than 4.5 million pounds of cargo during more than 1,900 combat missions.

Manufactured by Kaman Aerospace and outfitted with an advanced mission suite by Lockheed Martin, the unmanned K-MAX is engineered with a twin-rotor design that maximizes lift capability in the most challenging environments.

Its advanced autonomy allows unmanned K-MAX to work day and night, in all-weather, even when manned assets are unable to fly, according to the release.

Lockheed, Kaman and Neya Systems pushed the capability to new levels by using unmanned aerial system Control Segment Architecture and with the K-MAX to evacuate a simulated ground casualty on March 26, according to a Lockheed Martin release.

During the demonstration, a distress call led ground operators to send an unmanned ground vehicle to assess the area and injured party.  The ground operators used control stations that communicated with one another using the UAS control segment architecture.

The ground operators requested airlift by an unmanned K-MAX of one individual who was injured. From the ground, the K-MAX operators used a tablet to determine the precise location and a safe landing area to provide assistance to the team. The injured team member, a mannequin, was strapped into a seat on the side of the unmanned K-MAX, which then flew that individual to safety.

There was, however, a pilot on board the KMAX to satisfy the Federal Aviation Administration’s safety protocols, according to Emily Kleiman, spokeswoman for Lockheed.

“In order to comply with FAA regulations, we do have to have a safety pilot on board, however the KMAX was controlled directly by ground operators,” Kleiman told Military.com.

Lockheed officials were pleased with the demonstration.

“This application of the unmanned K-MAX enables day or night transport of wounded personnel to safety without endangering additional lives,” said Jay McConville, director of business development for Unmanned Integrated Solutions at Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Training.

“Since the K-MAX returned from a nearly three-year deployment with the U.S. Marine Corps, we’ve seen benefits of and extended our open system design incorporating the UCS Architecture, which allows rapid integration of new applications across industry to increase the safety of operations, such as casualty evacuation, where lives are at stake.”

Neya officials said they were continuing to develop advanced technologies for human robot interfaces for complex platforms and multi-robot missions, Parag Batavia, president of Neya, said in the release.

“Our and Lockheed Martin’s use of the unmanned aircraft system control segment architecture greatly sped up integration of our respective technologies, resulting in a comprehensive capability that can be ultimately transitioned to the warfighter very efficiently,” he said.

Lockheed is a global security and aerospace company based in Bethesda, Md. Kaman Aerospace is a division Kaman Corporation, which was founded in 1945 by aviation pioneer Charles H. Kaman. It’s headquartered in Bloomfield, Conn. And Neya Systems, LLC is a small business unmanned systems company based in Wexford, Penn.

— Matthew Cox can be reached at Matthew.Cox@military.com.

  • steve

    I didn’t see anything about plans to replace traditional medevacs with unmanned drones. Or did I read another article? It’s being tested, that’s why a pilot is onboard, nobody said it would always have a pilot. It will be another tool in the drawer. It’s night time, the weather is terrible, and you’re under fire. one of your operators gets hit. The team medic manages to stop most of the bleeding. Instead of risking even more lives, the team leader calls in a K-MAX. The bird arrives in minutes, oblivious to the weater, dark, and firefight. They get the wounded on the bird and it lands at a forward medical facility well within The Golden Hour for trauma. What the heck is your problem?

    • runswithscissors

      Agree completely. It will be up to field commanders local medical personnel to evaluate the patient, the field conditions, and the medevac equipment that is available to make the decision as to how and when they extract the injured personnel. The people who develop this kind of equipment don’t live in a vacuum…. they design equipment based on feedback from people who have served on the front lines.

      • steve

        Or another scenario, a trooper gets wounded, but, not critically. Do you risk another 5 or 6 lives? Or do you save the medevac for Priority One, critical cases and use a drone?

        • Oblat99

          You send back to the line. This isnt a holiday.

          • steve

            What if the “rear” is miles away, over rough, occupied terrain? You going to tell a wounded trooper to head back to the rear on foot? Ooh, I know, maybe we could lose the medic, driver, ambulance, and wounded to an IED.

    • Curt

      Not just that, let’s consider. A unmanned aircraft can be much smaller than a H-60 with two pilots, two gunners, a couple of medics and litter patients. After all, you just have to move say 400lbs. Compare the KMAX to said H-60 for instance although I doubt a KMAX would be used in this role. So it can get into places easier than a H-60. So it may be able to land on the street as opposed to hovering over a building. So you might have unmanned aircraft shuttle the casualties to a secure LZ where they are loaded on a evac helo. Much better to move them 2000yds by unmanned aircraft as opposed to carrying them 200yds. Something like a 50pct scale or smaller S-97 with a small compartment to carry the casualty.

      Is it worth it, who knows but it is important to note that this was a demonstration to show what was possible not a program that is being pursued. If it makes sense, someday it may be adopted.

    • LHS3

      C’mon get with the program here! Listen tomorrow’s military will be all drones so why need a medevac at all? In fact these helo-drones could be used instead as retrievers of robotic equipment knocked out in the field for cannibalic parts. In addition to being retrievers they would play an obvious role as attack dogs. Read “Physics of the Future” and all your fears will be either be eliminated or heightened depending on your point of view.

  • Edward

    Feel better if K-max still can have a pilot in its cockpit as a backup if need be I don’t trust a computer to get me home when bad guys try to jam the controls by computer.

    • t1oracle

      You should feel lucky that they send anything to come get you. Sometimes the chance of rescue is so low that it doesn’t make sense to send people. With something like this, they can justify trying anyway. Maybe it gets shot out of the sky, or maybe it gets really lucky and saves someone that we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to rescue.

  • Brian B. Mulholland

    I can imagine a pilotless medevac a lot more easily than I can imagine a medic-less medevac. That golden hour is too precious to waste.

    Realistically, if anything comes of this, it’ll be a stretcher-and-IV-drip pallet that can be fitted to the helicopter for days when demand for the bigger machines with the real medics is overwhelming. The guys who won’t be lost without ongoing attention will be brought back accordingly. The harder end of the triage cases will get the manned machines with the medics.

    There will be days when you will need both, it happens.

    • runningbear

      60 klicks (3/4 hr.) in a Huey was ok for walkin’ wounded, the docs worked on those bad hurt till the da nang lz; hiep duc, 8/69; polar bears. I could have rode in a K-max after the morph. shot kicked-in.

    • steve

      They’ve been working on a robotic medic for years. It’s probably coming along. A robotic medic can administer blood, plasma, medication, monitor vitals, and keep a wounded soldier alive in an unmanned vehicle. It won’t replace humans, but, it can be part of an automated medevac system.

  • ToBeSeen

    A Blackhawk is a large aircraft that is noisy and must support a crew of five in addition to the wounded.

    If you only need to evacuate one wounded it could be a much smaller helo and the extra weight used up by a crew and thier support could go into better protection for the wounded (titanium tub) and/or a duel power source engine, turbine for engress and egress and battery driven for the mile in and mile out, being very quiet. A high altitude UAV could survey the hot zone around the evac area and instruct the helo which is the best egress pathway. Put an secure homing device on the wounded and they could be pick up easily. I would imagine if you could move the wounded a mare 5 miles away from a fire fight you could offload the wound to a blackhawk that does have a medic onboard and still remain in the “golden hour.”

    Will this work tomorrow and next year, maybe not, but with 10-15 years of basic research, this could be very viable.

    • steve

      You’re way off on when this will be working. I bet under two years. The K-MAX has already flown automated, they’re just tweaking it a bit and adding support for a patient.

  • amauyong

    Well as long as in those scenarios where manned assets cannot be used due to weather/etc….this should offer a alternate viable option where lives are concerned…

  • amauyong

    Not just for military use…also for civilian…

  • SFCPappy

    There is a big difference between the location of a Casualty Collection Point and the frontlines. CCP’s are located in safe areas. Not all wounded have the luxury of time to get moved to the CCP. The Golden Hour is great for city paramedics but not realistic if your FOB is located on the Syrian border or in the mountains of Afghanistan. Join the world of reality on the battlefield. This is like that remote controlled frontline casualty retriever. Millions wasted on something that never could be fielded. Why? Because, even though it actually works it’s easily destroyed by enemy forces.

    But what the hell. Computers, game boxes and a basic lack of Giv-A-Shit by today’s generation just means that the survival rate will decrease to Korean War levels.

    When I was laying in that Blackhawk medevac bleeding and two IV’s going I was and still am greatful for the medic on the chopper. So did the other three wounded. Let’s see a toy robot meet those standards.

    • steve

      Yeah, a machine could never administer an IV, Your ignorance and belligerence are truly a mighty combo. The Golden Hour refers getting your butt to a trauma center, not a medic keeping you stable.

    • SPC4 Vance

      Amen and well put. While I was a medic in peace time I always trained as if it was real. Nothing puts the patient in a place to fight for their lives like someone willing to put it all on the line to save them. When the powers that be can come up with an evac process that can treat a patient with a passion of a medic I’ll tell them we’ve had that all along, raise our pay!

  • Brian B. Mulholland

    ToBeSeen’s post suggests a possibility that hadn’t crossed my mind - that removing a crew from the medevac might permit a smaller platform that could be more survivable in hotly contested airspace. I don’t think that the battery technology needed for even a short distance flight on electric power is there yet, but it might happen within a decade.

    • blight_

      The transportation constraint to move something stretcher-sized with appropriate armoring to protect it in the dangerous conditions it is expected to be used in may cut into that size/weight savings. I’m curious how much range is required of such a machine. It doesn’t need to self-deploy over long distances, and I suppose the other option is in-flight refueling to extend the system’s range (while keeping fuel tank size low to keep size small).

      • steve

        I doubt it would self-deploy. It would be a huge weight savings just getting rid of the controls and pilot and co-pilot. If, the only humans onboard are going to be horizontal on a stretcher, even more options for it’s size and shape.

        This is just the first try at it. It almost sounds like somebody noticed it’s record delivering supplies and asked themselves if it could do medevac as well. If this works well enough, I expect to see a purpose designed craft fairly soon. I think we’re going to see some interesting options for casualty care and evacuation in the near future. When somebody is bleeding out in the field, there’s no such thing as too many options to send to help. If you could get two or three of these on a cargo plane to every Blackhawk, that’s a big help right there.

  • Ted Koler

    Before everyone gets emotional, consider this: KMAX has already proven itself in the TAO; I was one of two KMAX systems engineers that spent 22 months in Helmand Province. We delivered almost 4 million pounds of supplies to operational elements that would otherwise do without. We flew high-risk Red Zone sorties that resulted in saving 14 Marine lives; they would have been killed without our resupply. KMAX demonstrated the ability to operate safely, yet deliver cargo with pinpoint accuracy. Ultra-low noise signature and Apache-like profile contributed to survivability; we never took a single round of gunfire. And let’s not forget an operating cost of less than $1000 per flight hour, maintenance inclusive.

    The KMAX operators are seasoned, rotor-wing aviators who fully understand and appreciate the KMAX performance envelope, operational characteristics and in-flight aerodynamics; KMAX can lift 6,000 pounds at sea level density altitude. We regularly lifted 4,500 pounds to 14,500 density altitude.

    I fully appreciate the resistance to placing a human life at the mercy of a machine, but given the extreme circumstance for employment, using an unmanned platform for recovery of wounded may be the only expedient choice.

    • Dylan

      Thanks for chiming in. If you’re still with KMAX, good luck in your future endeavors!

    • Wild Bill

      Ted,
      Have the Marines actually bought or plan to buy this platform? I know that the work you did in Afghanistan was very successful and surely proved the concept and technology, but I don’t believe that I have seen a purchase for a batch of these

      • Ted Koler

        Wild Bill,

        Sorry for the delay in my response. I cannot speak for the Marines or any Service branch.

        I do know KMAX CRUAS (Cargo Resupply Unmanned Aerial System) exceeded expectations throughout the pre-deployment evaluation at Yuma Proving Grounds during the summer of 2011 (Yuma in the summer is similar to Afghanistan) and continued to exceed expectations while deployed in Helmand Province. Our highly adaptable mission profile and high availability contributed to three continuous extensions of our period of performance.

        Even though this platform has demonstrated exceptional capability, the Marines are subject to the same budgetary pressures as the other Branches. The future for KMAX is still viable.

    • steve

      Well, look at some really bad accidents over the past few decades. There’s been a lot of times where the biggest factor in the disaster was humans not letting the machine do what it’s trying to do. Be it a new aircraft or Three Mile Island’s reactor, the machines were trying to do something, a human said,” oh no, you won’t”, and bad day ensues. It’s human nature to trust a human over a machine, even if the human will doom us all.

  • JohnnyRanger

    If the LZ is so hot that a manned dustoff is effectively a suicide mission, but the casualty is so far along that doing nothing would mean death anyway, this would be a better-than-nothing option. Unless it had room for an attending (and very brave) medic though (sorry - redundant), it had better be decked out with a lot of automated life-support equipment.

  • John_B

    Exactly my concerns. How the heck these unmanned helis know to avoid ground fires like those in Vietnam ?

  • steve

    Actually, what I think the future holds for our military, is more machines. The armed systems get all the media, but,, over the next couple of decades we’re going to see more and more support roles run by robots/remote-controlled vehicles. There’s been giant strides in AI over the last two decades, often, a computer can be the steadier pilot, it’s never hot, cold, tired, bleeding, worried it’s spouse is cheating, are the kids okay, OMG that’s a lot of fire coming at us, etc. Later models and software, it won’t guess how to dodge incoming fire, it will be doing actual math and avoiding the trajectories as best as the machine can. So, you’re going to see automated convoys transferring fuel and supplies, robotic logistic support, like the K-MAX and Big Dog.

    This isn’t to say they’ll be times humans are needed for the job. A lot of posters aren’t thinking command level. There’ll be bad days when you as a commander would hesitate to send any more people to get supplies in or wounded out. But, you’ll send all the robots and unmanned vehicles you have, because, heck, some of them are just bound to make it through. You’re at a Forward Base and half the supply convoy trucks got whacked on the way in from IEDs and ambush. But, no biggie, nobody was actually in the trucks, they drove by themselves and somebody in the rear was remotely operating the turrets. They’re sending more stuff tomorrow, or as we speak. Your buddy gets nailed, you’re company is pinned in an urban setting, you’re temporarily trapped. Your medic jams a couple of syringes of coagulant to stop the bleeding, he hangs a bag of blood replacement on him, a couple of minutes later a tiny armored vehicles speeds through the intense AK and machinegun fire. The medic guides it right up to the doorway of the building your in. You slide out a streter from the vehicle and slide your buddy in. You shut the hatch and the vehicle once again speeds off and automatically speeds to the nearest aid station, oblivious and immune to most of the fire. There’s a loud noise on the roof, somebody just guided a K-MAX, or it’s next version on the roof, it’s loaded with water and ammo. Twenty minutes later, your company regains the initiative with help of air and ground support, be they human or not, and is able to win the day. That’s twenty minutes that kid wasn’t waiting to be evacced while waiting for a way to an LZ or an LZ is secured. That’s probably going to be the near future. There’ll be days when you’ll want the Little Birds and the real pilots, but, they’ll be days when you’ll want to save the talent and their lives too.

    • steve

      And I’ll counter the above statement, it will also free up real crews for the hairy stuff because they’re not flying routine stuff.

      • Oblat99

        Not realy, it frees up more men to work at arbys. the new machines are more expensive and hr money has to come from the salaries of those it replaces.

        • steve

          Well, humans are expensive in the long run. You have to hire them, train them, pay them, and pay out benefits when something bad happens to them. The commander has to write a letter telling their loved ones what happened. If a K-MAX buys the farm, there’s probably some sort of form, in triplicate, to fill out.

  • malakieusn

    Yea let’s see this in forested hilly areas…

  • Oblat99

    Without onboard medical treatment a good proportion of the medivac cases will be delivering a dead body.but his needs to be balanced with the much higher contractor margins. You can bet the contractor accountants are tallying up all the savings… fewer medical staff needed, much less disability payments etc and making the economic case for kmax.

    • steve

      Go online and look up robot medics. They have been in development for some time. I think these systems will be united at some point. A human medic will patch you up enough to get you into a vehicle. He or she will hook you up to the robotic systems in the stretcher area. The machine would monitor your vitals, pump you full of drugs, medicine, blood or blood replacement, and keep you alive enough to make it to a MASH or Aid Station.

      • Leon Suchorski

        Your argument would hold water, but we have these choppers NOW, and those robots are a long way off yet. So the problem comes up, that if you stick a casualty in there, and complications ensue, with no one to care for him, he arrives DOA.

        • steve

          We’re talking about a 5 to 20 minute flight to an actual medical facility. If the trooper shows up dead, guess what, they probably weren’t going to make it anyway. If you weren’t able to stabilize the patient for that short a time, it’s a bad day. It’s combat, people die, and you’ll never save everyone.

      • blight_

        A statistical analysis of the types of care that are performed by a medical evacuation team would be helpful in determining the net capability of a completely automated medevac system. Quick-Clot, Robo-Tourniquet, blood-transfusion, saline IV would be helpful, but there’s a few fringe cases that a robot might not detect. However, whether or not a human can reliably catch them in time on a flying medevac helicopter that might be shot at or dodging bullets is anyone’s guess.

  • Ziv

    If this will be used as a supplement to traditional air evacuation of casualties, it is a good idea. If it is being considered as a replacement for traditional evacuation, it is a bad idea. Leaving a wounded soldier alone for more that a couple minutes is not a good idea, but KMAX type helos can get a soldier to a medic/doctor located 3 miles away from the fighting in just 2 minutes.

  • steve

    A lot of posters here, just do not understand modern Artificial Intelligence. Just this week, a team announced a algorithm that allows a machine to adapt to a broken part within minutes. Before a multi-legged robot could have a failure, and within a few days, adapt and move on. Now, it can figure out how to move while damaged in minutes. You put enough sensors and software, incoming fire is a data point, a small clearing just a tighter flight path. An unmanned vehicle can dodge fire way better, it’s not concerned about soft, squishy humans being turned to paint from the G forces and it’s not going to blackout or redout. It only has to worry about that if there’s a patient onboard.

    • d. kellogg

      If it’s an A.I.-driven aeromed evac aircraft, it IS going to have to be concerned with “squishy organic meatbags”. Can’t be pulling 10G dodge-fire maneuvers with wounded passengers in various states of injury, possibly cranial or spinal, where you need to keep patients stable and immobilized.

      Common sense, man.

  • steve

    UM, did you consider I was talking about when it’s empty and on it’s way? No, you did not.

    • d. kellogg

      Empty and on it’s way INTO contested hot zones?
      Doesn’t do a lick of good: it becomes an expensive asset that now ground units will have to keep secure until heavier forces can secure a safe corridor (from air and ground threats) for the vehicle to be removed (by its own power or other means).

      These current K-MAX cargo birds are just like 99% of other US drone operations: uncontested airspace and a minimal ground threat from any suitably-equipped enemies, and quite often under the cover of night (few third world adversaries have sufficient near-peer night fighting capabilities).
      We’re a log way off from A.I.-driven multirole drones that can ingress and egress at will, performing a plethora of roles including standing against threats and surviving (thru aggressive response or evasive action).

      Leave the Hollywood sci fi at the box office. These kinds of drones are at least a quarter century away.

  • blight_

    Some interesting questions have come up in re the use of teleoperated medevac helicopters.

    Case one assumes that we will have empty helicopters designed only to whisk a patient away. However, this means the medics on the ground must stabilize all passengers for transport, which is impossible in a mass-casualty event. A manned medevac chopper can “take over” the handling of patients, freeing up a medic or combat lifesaver attached to a unit to perform other duties. Whisking away the casualties is one thing, and reducing the load on the “doc” on the ground is another. In cases in the civilian world where someone calls 911, the ambulance carries EMT’s because a patient requires stabilization before transport. If the plan is to use unmanned helicopters to whisk patients away, it requires more medical work on the ground to stabilize them for transport.

    Case two assumes an unpiloted aircraft that can carry medical crews. This transfers the risk entirely to medical personnel, which also do not grow on trees. This does increase the number of medevac helicopters available in cases where the number of medical personnel outnumbers the number of available helicopters. Being able to shake someone awake and put them on a helicopter to somewhere in a pinch is better than shaking someone in a medical tent awake but not having an available pilot (however, it does not address the possibility that unmanned helicopters may be deadlined due to maintenance issues).