Pilotless helos to replace supply trucks in Afghanistan

The Kaman/Lockheed Martin K-MAX unmanned helicopter. The U.S. military is experimenting with unmanned helos to resupply outposts in order to reduce the risk of roadside bombs to supply trucks.


By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 20, 2010

QALAT, Afghanistan — Unmanned helicopters will deliver cargo to remote outposts in Afghanistan next year as part of a U.S. Navy trial that aims to reduce Marines’ exposure to roadside bombs during supply missions.

The Navy plans to select a contractor later this year to conduct the trial in 2011, according to Eric Pratson, leader of the Navy’s Cargo UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) Integrated Product Team.

“This is a rapid deployment effort being led by the Navy in response to an urgent needs requirement for a Cargo UAS capability in support of Marine Corps forces engaged in Operation Enduring Freedom,” he said in an e-mail.

Boeing, with its A160T Hummingbird helicopter, and Kaman/Lockheed Martin, with its K-MAX helicopter — are vying for the contract.

The companies demonstrated their unmanned helicopters for Army, Navy and Marine Corps officials at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah earlier this year, according to Dan Spoor, Lockheed Martin aviation systems vice president.

At sea level, the K-MAX can lift its own weight — 6,000 pounds; using a carousel system, it can lift four 750-pound pallets. Using preprogrammed GPS waypoints, it can fly to up to four remote locations, drop supplies at each within a 10-meter circle and return to base, Spoor said.

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

It costs about $1,100 an hour to operate: “The cost savings come through not having to deploy a crew,” he 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 said the craft can drop supplies automatically or it also can fly to a waypoint where a person at a ground control station takes control and can 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.”

Programmers can enter a variety of data into each mission, including locations of likely threats and an emergency go-to point. Operators can also take control at any time during flight to reroute it, he said. Its range is about 270 nautical miles.

Boeing Rotorcraft Systems spokesman Marc Sklar said in an e-mail that the Hummingbird helicopter appears to meet the Navy’s requirements for the Afghan trial.

The Hummingbird can carry 2,500 pounds of cargo and cruise at up to 30,000 feet at 190 mph. In May 2008, the A160T flew for 18.7 hours setting a record for endurance in its weight class for unmanned aerial vehicles, according to Boeing. Its range is 2,250 nautical miles, according to the company’s specs.

Sara Condon, a senior project engineer with the Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command, said in an e-mail Thursday that the Army also is developing a requirement for cargo UAS, but doesn’t have its own program yet.

“The U.S. Marine Corps has been tasked with finding a suitable platform to meet the urgent need for an unmanned cargo resupply asset that can perform the task of routine resupply,” she said.

Army cargo UAS efforts in the lead-up to the Afghan trial are focused on linking the K-MAX with systems that allow operators to control multiple unmanned aircraft at one time and that perform some in-flight tasks without human intervention, she said.

First Lt. Andrew Cahan, 24, of Lovettsville, Va., an air operations officer with 2nd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment at Camp Eagle in Zabul province said last month that soldiers in Afghanistan like the concept.

Many 2nd Squadron soldiers work in mountainous areas, separated from larger bases by narrow winding roads where insurgents bury bombs, so the only practical way to deliver cargo to them is by air, he said.

Factors such as weather, fuel and the availability of flight crews also limit the amount of cargo that can be delivered to the outposts, he said.

“If we can take out one of those limiting factors — how long a crew can work in a day — we could deliver more cargo,” Cahan said.


The Boeing A-160T unmanned helicopter. The U.S. military is experimenting with unmanned helos to resupply outposts in order to reduce the risk of roadside bombs to supply trucks.