The Marines also think it’s breaking ground for new drone uses, inside and outside the military.
"It might take some time in the United States for a civilian application, but the crews here are proving it works and that it’s incredibly reliable and cost-effective," said Maj. Daniel Lindblom, of Alexandria, Va., who oversees the various unmanned-aircraft programs the Marines run in Afghanistan. "It’s just a matter of time."
The K-MAX looks a little odd, with its side-by-side rotors, narrow fuselage and lack of a tail rotor, but it isn’t startlingly futuristic. That’s because it was based on a manned civilian cargo helicopter that had proved itself for years as Lockheed Martin searched for a simple way to meet the requirements of the test without a vast investment in research and development to build a drone from scratch. It joined forces with the original builder of the K-MAX to convert the helicopter to work by remote operation and automation.
It still has a cockpit, and a pilot can taxi it into place before the cargo is attached or fly it around for maintenance checks. When it’s time to lift the cargo, the pilot flicks a switch to NOLO – “no local operator" – steps out of the cockpit and walks away.
In a converted shipping container nearby, an operator at the helm of a Sony PlayStation video-game console takes over, and a crew hooks on the cargo, which dangles on a sling about 75 feet below the K-MAX as it flies off.
The PlayStation is simple, cheap, reliable and already familiar to many people, members of the K-MAX ground crew said. If a controller gums up or breaks, someone drives over to the Marine PX and buys another one, said Phil Melton, a pilot from Priest River, Idaho, who works for Oregon’s Swanson Group Aviation. Swanson has the contract to maintain and operate the K-MAX here.
After takeoff, much of the helicopter’s flight is automated. K-MAX uses GPS satellite navigation to follow a preset path that’s filed with air traffic controllers. There isn’t a video camera aboard, which is one reason it’s important that its routes be carefully coordinated in advance with air traffic controllers and others, such as combat air controllers on the ground. Also that means the ground crew can’t see approaching thunderstorms, so they’re careful to fly only when there’s little chance of a surprise in the weather.
It can travel about 80 miles each way, but it’s best at distances of 58 miles or less because then it can be controlled by a line-of-sight radio system. If it goes farther, the crew has to switch to a less-reliable satellite telephone to control it.
Once it reaches its destination, the ground crew at Camp Bastion is in communication with the troops at the other end, who tell them when the helicopter is in position to ease the cargo down safely. The operator at the PlayStation console hits a "deliver" button and the K-MAX descends automatically at a controlled rate to about 90 feet, then slows the descent to a crawl. When the cargo settles to the ground, a weight sensor triggers the release of the cargo hook, and the K-MAX automatically climbs into the sky again and follows the preset path back to the air base at Camp Bastion, the British side of the massive joint base that includes the main Marine base in Afghanistan, Camp Leatherneck.