Lockheed Martin is looking to make further enhancements to the autonomous capabilities of its unmanned Kaman K-Max helicopter, as it waits on possible procurement decisions from the US Marine Corps and US Army.
Two K-Max have been used in support of USMC operations in Afghanistan since December 2011, lifting equipment and supplies to forward operating bases. Initially employed under a six-month evaluation, the capability has twice been extended, and will remain in theatre until at least August 2014.
"We are hoping that it will become a programme of record for the USMC, and the [US] army also is looking at the cost-effectiveness of this programme," says George Barton, Lockheed's vice-president business development for ship and aviation systems. Pointing to the budgetary impact of Congressionally-mandated sequestration cuts, he adds: "Standing up a new programme of record will be difficult, but there's a desire there."
Approval from either service to acquire the unmanned K-Max would require the adapted commercial rotorcraft to re-enter production. "The facility where they were built has closed, but they kept all the machining," Barton notes. "It's just a question of pushing through steel."
Lockheed and Kaman estimate that it would take nine months to have the line re-established, with a first aircraft to be available just three months later.
Speaking at the DSEi show in London on 10 September, Barton said the unmanned aircraft has so far lifted loads weighing up to 2,040kg (4,500lb) at altitude in Afghanistan, with the bulk of its missions flown at night. So-called "hot hook-ups" of equipment are now being performed in concert with individuals on the ground, but Lockheed is investigating whether this activity could be performed automatically.
US Marine Corps
"We're building a device that will sit on top of the package so the aircraft can come in and hook-up," Barton says. Marines are already using an optical beacon in Afghanistan to call in a K-Max to within 1m (3.3ft) of a planned position, he notes.
Long-term, Lockheed's ambitions for the K-Max could also see the type gain the ability to be automatically rerouted in flight, and also to be flown in formation with other aircraft, Barton says.
Meanwhile, Barton says Lockheed is awaiting a decision on whether one of its deployed aircraft will be returned to use, following a flight incident in early June, the cause of which remains under investigation. "It's repairable, and we're discussing with the USMC on whether to repair it or replace it." A third unmanned K-Max is already in full test in the USA, he adds.