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YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The Marine Corps used an unmanned helicopter to deliver cargo to troops in Afghanistan for the first time this month.

A detachment of Marines from Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1 moved about 3,500 pounds of food and supplies to troops at Combat Outpost Payne using an unmanned K-MAX helicopter on Dec. 17, according to Kyle O’Connor, the officer in charge of the detachment.

“We delivered cargo today that was supposed to be delivered by convoy (and) now that convoy has three pallets that it does not have to carry,” O’Connor said in a Marine Corps news release.

The unmanned K-MAX, built by Kaman and Lockheed-Martin, can lift its own weight — 6,000 pounds – at sea level, according to Dan Spoor, Lockheed Martin aviation systems vice president.

The aircraft can lift four 750-pound pallets using a carousel system. It can fly to up to four remote locations, drop supplies at each within a 10-meter circle and return to base using GPS coordinates, Spoor said before the aircraft deployed to Afghanistan.

“An entire mission can be done autonomously with nobody controlling the aircraft other than the person who programmed the mission beforehand,” he said.

The unmanned K-MAX costs about $1,100 an hour to operate: “The cost savings come through not having to deploy a crew,” Spoor said. “The cost to operate and maintain the aircraft is significantly less than the cost of maintaining a manned aircraft in the field.”

K-MAX programs director Terry Fogarty told Stars and Stripes before the aircraft deployed to Afghanistan that it could drop supplies automatically or it also could fly to a waypoint where a person at a ground control station could take control and pilot the craft locally.

“You want to remove that threat of putting people in harm’s way when you are moving cargo around,” he said. “You can do it at night and put no one in harm’s way.”

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