In a key step toward developing a new mission for unmanned air systems, two optionally-piloted Lockheed Martin/Kaman K-Max helicopters will move to a US Marine Corps base in Arizona by the end of September.

Marine Corps test squadron VMX-22 will use the newly-designated CQ-24As to “develop concept of operations and tactics, techniques and procedures, and to help inform any programme of record”, Naval Air Systems Command tells Flightglobal.

The marines are already very familiar with the K-Max platform, having logged more than 1,800 flight hours with two aircraft in an extended, three-year demonstration tour in Afghanistan.

But the service plans to soon launch an acquisition programme for a fleet of cargo UAS (CRUAS). If a schedule released late last year stays on track, the Marine Corps would finalise requirements within four years and launch production within seven years.

There are two advanced technology programmes also in development to support the future CRUAS. The Defense Research Projects Agency is funding the aerial reconfigurable embedded system, with a Lockheed/Piasecki team developing a dual-ducted fan-based unmanned platform. And the Office of Naval Research is sponsoring the autonomous aerial cargo/utility system (AACUS), a technology being developed by Aurora Flight Sciences to allow an unmanned rotorcraft to self-select a landing zone.

Although these technologies are soon moving into flight demonstration phase, the marines’ aggressive timeline to reach production in 2022 could favour existing systems.

K-Max full size - Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin

Unless the marines’ requirements change, Lockheed continues to support the K-Max as its preferred solution.

“Right now the Marine Corps has a very very reliable platform in K-Max, and that’s something we’re going to continue to offer to them,” says Jon McMillen, Lockheed’s business development lead for unmanned systems.

Lockheed’s proposed acquisition of helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky likely would not change the company’s customer-oriented philosophy towards platform selection, he says.

“I don’t know it will affect it,” McMillen says. “We’re really not going to look at what platforms we have, but what platforms best meet the customer’s requirement as a solution.”

Meanwhile, Lockheed continues to offer the optionally-piloted K-Max for demonstration for a range of emerging military and civil roles, including wildfire fighting. A firefighting demonstration planned by the Department of Interior has been delayed, but Lockheed expects the agency to have it scheduled in the future.