Next month, the Afghanistan war gets a boost. Specifically, a boost from a robotic helicopter that ferries gear to U.S. troops.
Check out the video above. That’s the K-MAX helicopter, a collaboration between defense giant Lockheed Martin and Connecticut aerospace company Kaman, lifting off from an Arizona test site in August, after its human pilot walked out of the cockpit. The copter ascends, toting nets bearing what look like hundreds of pounds’ worth of palletized cargo, flies the gear off to another part of the Yuma Proving Ground, drops it safely, and lands.
This isn’t the first unmanned helicopter used in the Afghanistan war. Earlier this year, the Navy — which also owns the K-MAX — sent its Fire Scout surveillance helos into the war zone, where they flew as much as 400 hours per month. But K-MAX is the first robo-copter used for cargo operations, and the Department of the Navy’s been looking for months at using drone helos not only to drop troops their re-supply, but to get wounded warriors to a field hospital before it’s too late.
It’s not hard to see why. Afghanistan’s craggy terrain isn’t great for airstrips large enough to land a hulking Air Force cargo plane, so helicopters have to hopscotch the south and east of the country to make their base drops. Those helicopters are at constant risk of running into Afghan insurgents packing rocket-propelled grenades or even shoulder-mounted missiles, especially if they’re freighted with heavy pallets. Even worse: Afghanistan’s terrain is hell on helicopters. “The most God-awful environment I’ve ever seen helicopters placed,” one commander recently told Danger Room.
The Navy’s other robotic helicopter, the Fire Scout, has a mixed track record. The Pentagon’s independent testing group says it only completed 54 percent of its missions during a recent tour about the U.S.S. Halyburton. The Navy strongly rejects that assessment, and wears the Fire Scouts’ shootdown over Libya as a kind of badge of honor. Still, the K-MAX will have a much different mission than the Fire Scout. And as long as a human pilot isn’t in danger, the Navy isn’t so concerned.
The K-MAX is capable of hauling up to 6,000 pounds at sea level, and can carry 4,300 as high up as 15,000 feet. In August, it ran a battery of tests at Yuma to show it can meet the Navy/Marine Corps requirement of moving up to 6,000 pounds of gear per day in Afghanistan. Pilots control the helicopter from a ground control station, like many larger drones.
Before the year is done, two K-MAXes will arrive in Afghanistan. (A Navy spokeswoman, Jamie Cosgrove, declined to specify where they’ll be stationed.)