UCAR Lives!

Anybody remember the Unmanned Combat Armed Rotorcraft (aka, UCAR)?

UCAR was one of those futuristic concept vehicles that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (aka, DARPA) swoons over until the Army (aka, army) sees the bill, and then — poof — the program dies.

Well, it’s back — kind of.

When UCAR got the budget axe about two years ago, there were two teams involved. There was Lockheed Martin offering an unmanned version of the Bell Helicopter 407, with a very cool propulsive anti-torque feature (think vectored-thrust but on a helicopter). And there was Northrop Grumman offering the Kaman Aerospace K-MAX, which has inter-meshing rotors to solve that pesky (for helicopters) anti-torque issue.

Two years later, Lockheed Martin announced last week that it’s getting back into the unmanned armed rotorcraft business, but with a twist: they’re switching partners. Gone is the Bell 407, which, goodness knows, is in enough trouble right now.

Onboard is (drum-roll …) their former competitor: the Kaman Aerospace K-MAX. Lockheed Martin’s press release says:

"The K-MAX has proven its capabilities, at very high altitudes and in hot environments, and has demonstrated more than twelve hours of continuous flight operations as a UAS. Working with Lockheed Martin, the K MAX will realize even greater potential and hopefully serve our forces in a capacity to reduce the burden on our ground and aviation forces.”

Not surprisingly, Lockheed Martin’s press release omits any direct references to the aborted UCAR program, except to mention that some of the technologies were developed under previous DARPA programs. (Yeah, we know.)

A very puzzling question this new teaming arrangement creates is — to put it simply — why? No obvious market exists for a highly autonomous and armed (always a troubling combination), unmanned helicopter. Perhaps Lockheed Martin can pitch it as an advanced alternative to the Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout, but to whom? There is no sign that the Fire Scout’s two customers — the army and the navy — would consider dumping Northrop Grumman for a more unproven alternative.

Your guess is as good as mine, in other words.

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