Kaman has received multiple firm orders for autonomous K-Max Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) kits from Helicopter Express and Swanson Group Aviation.

The company declines to say exactly how many examples have been ordered. The two companies, which operate the manned version of the K-Max for heavy lift missions, are launch customers for the aftermarket kit and have each ordered more than one system, said Romin Dasmalchi, senior director of business development with Kaman on 27 January.

Kaman K-Max at MCAS Yuma

Source: US Marine Corps

Autonomous Kaman K-Max at Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, Arizona

The company says it is also in sales discussions with Rotak, a heavy-lift helicopter service, which is interested in flying the K-Max autonomously in remote regions of Alaska.

Delivery of the first kits is anticipated in 2021. The company said a year ago that it expected to deliver the K-Max UAS kit to customers in 2020.

News of the orders for the K-Max UAS kits come as Kaman is planning to flight test the technology for the first time in July or August 2020. The first flight of the K-Max UAS will follow a critical design review of the helicopter’s autonomous flight-control software in February and ground tests before June, says the company.

Kaman first flew the K-Max autonomously in 2011 with the US Marine Corps (USMC) as part of a 33-month long aerial cargo resupply experiment in Afghanistan. The autonomous flight control system controlling that helicopter was developed in partnership with Lockheed Martin.

This new variant of the K-Max autonomous flight-control system is a clean-sheet design and the intellectual property behind it is completely owned by Kaman, says Dasmalchi. The new autonomous flight-control system is about 91kg (200lb) lighter than the previous iteration. It can be retrofitted to operational K-Max helicopters or factory-new aircraft, he says.

Kaman believes that the ability to fly the K-Max autonomously will breathe new life into the production of the aircraft, significantly boosting demand for the intermeshing rotorcraft above the about five per year delivery pace.

The manufacturer sees the autonomous K-Max UAS as being especially useful in dangerous situations, such as aerial firefighting at night.

Kaman does not have a certification timeline for the K-Max UAS from the Federal Aviation Administration. The company expects the hardware to be ready for flight before FAA regulations for unmanned air vehicles are established. It plans on working with customers to gain flight exemptions from the regulator, especially within restricted airspace reserved for aerial firefighting.

Kaman K-Max MCAS Yuma 2

Source: US Marine Corps

Autonomous Kaman K-Max at Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, Arizona

Kaman is also developing a more advanced variant of its autonomous flight-control system for the USMC via a contract with Naval Air Systems Command. That system will be based on the commercial K-Max UAS kit, but will also incorporate “sensor-based autonomy”; the ability to fly based on information gathered from lidar, radar, or electro-optical and infra-red sensors.

Dasmalchi cautions that USMC requirements are still being developed, but the intent is to experiment with ways to use the autonomous K-Max to resupply small teams of Marines, perhaps platoons or companies, while on the move. The service is working on new forms of expeditionary warfare that emphasise distributed operations to avoid large groups of troops being attacked by precision weapons from adversaries such as China or Russia.

“We see a clear need for more autonomous logistics to support that sort of operating concept,” says Dasmalchi.

Kaman claims the K-Max has low maintenance needs and a 95% readiness level while in the field.

“These Marines are going to be on the move all the time,” says Dasmalchi. “And so, you need a system that’s flexible and that can adapt. You need a system that doesn’t take a whole lot of boots on the ground.”

The K-Max UAS can lift 2,040kg and has a combat radius of 100nm (185km). Kaman is looking at doubling the helicopter’s range via internal and external fuel tanks, says Dasmalchi.