Oil and gas specialist PHI has become the latest traditional rotorcraft operator to enter the market for next-generation aircraft, at Heli-Expo signing for up to 50 examples of Kaman’s developmental Kargo drone.
Although money is yet to change hands, the agreement commits the operator to work with Kaman on the programmes’s development, says Keith Mullett, managing director of PHI Aviation.
“The investment we are making is bigger than the cheques you might write for the units themselves.
“Cash will change hands at the appropriate time, but what comes before that is much more important because that will enable the success much later on.”
Through their pact, the pair will pursue a “three-phased approach” as they attempt to bring the Kargo into commercial service within three to four years.
The joint effort covers refinements to the design of the multi-copter aircraft, analysis of appropriate market segments, and regulatory approval for its operation.
Powered by a single Rolls-Royce M300 turbine, the autonomous Kargo can lift a maximum payload of 360kg (800lb) on distances of up to 500nm (926km). Although it bears a strong resemblance to electric-powered drones, the Kargo’s powertrain is entirely mechanical, using a proprietary arrangement of gearboxes to drive the four rotors.
Originally developed for military applications – including a cargo-delivery demonstration for the US Marine Corps – PHI believes there is a commercial market for the Kargo.
“We are absolutely convinced it is the best way forward for us in terms of diversification for our business,” says Mullett. “It will offer us a step change in what we can do.”
He sees the Kargo as offering a complementary capability to PHI’s fleet of conventional rotorcraft, allowing the completion of logistics missions in difficult conditions or where a manned aircraft is too costly to operate.
Carroll Lane, president of precision products at Kaman, says the maiden flight of the full-scale Kargo prototype will take place in the first half of this year.
Kaman has already engaged with the US Federal Aviation Administration as it prepares for first flight, but he sees the agreement with PHI as key to any future certification. “It’s about providing solutions to regulators that might not otherwise appear.”
Kargo has been in development for the past two years, during which time Kaman has already flown a one-half scale demonstrator.
PHI’s offshore transport rival Bristow Group has already shown an interest in developing a business for uncrewed cargo operations, signing for up to 100 of Elroy Air’s Chaparral vehicles.
The article has been amended to include additional information from Kaman in the seventh paragraph