The US Navy has selected the Kaman/Lockheed Martin K-Max helicopter to prove whether unmanned air systems (UAS) are suitable for ferrying supplies around the battlefield.
The deployment, consisting of two airframes, will leave the USA in November 2011 for "a central forward operating base" in Afghanistan. The aircraft, operated by a mixture of US Marine Corps personnel and contractors, will resupply remote outposts autonomously under a six-month pilot programme.
The USMC is operating over a wide area in Afghanistan, but is based primarily in the southwest of the country.
According to the navy, which administers Marine programmes, the K-Max exceeded requirements during a four-day evaluation in Yuma, Arizona, which was meant to simulate operating conditions in Afghanistan.
© Lockheed Martin
"We successfully completed all missions and reacted to challenging scenarios," said Maj Kyle O'Connor, who will lead the upcoming deployment. "The team worked through any issues or obstacles that surfaced and had both aircraft ready for operations at the start of each day."
Another unmanned helicopter, Northrop Grumman's MQ-8B Fire Scout, is currently deployed to eastern Afghanistan for reconnaissance purposes. Boeing is also in talks with the navy to deploy the A160 Hummingbird to Afghanistan for another Marine resupply demonstration by 2012.
A successful demonstration for the K-Max could open new opportunities for UAS in the defence sector. The military has until now operated unmanned aircraft almost exclusively as reconnaissance and strike assets, with the movement of supplies by air assigned only to manned aircraft.
The navy and the US Army are also considering expanding UAS missions to include carrying cargo. However, army officials have said that UAS will never carry people on routine re-supply missions.