December 29, 2011: On December 17th, a U.S. Marine Corps K-Max helicopter UAV in Afghanistan made its first combat supply delivery, bringing 1.5 tons of food and other items to a combat outpost. The mission took 90 minutes. Two K-Max helicopters arrived in Afghanistan last November and will remain until May.
The marines began looking for a cargo carrying helicopter UAV in 2009 and quickly determined that K-Max was the best candidate for further development and testing. The two K-Max UAVs in Afghanistan are there as a final test of how useful the vehicle is in a combat zone. An unmanned cargo helicopter risks fewer lives and is cheaper to operate. It can also be used in extremely hazardous missions.
The K-Max UAV was originally designed as a single seat helicopter that could carry sling loads of 2.8 tons (6,000 pounds) at sea level, or two tons (4,300 pounds) at 4,800 meters (15,000 feet). The 5.5 ton K-Max has a cruise speed of 185 kilometers an hour and can stay in the air for 2.6 hours per sortie. One of the most attractive features of the K-Max is the amount of automation in the aircraft. The flight control software can be programmed with where to take, and drop, a cargo and then return and land automatically. The operator can intervene at any time but most of the time the operator just monitors vidcams attached to the K-Max to ensure nothing goes wrong.
In 2010 the U.S. Army conducted tests using a K-Max to deliver supplies via parachute. This involved using the army low altitude parachute, which can drop loads of 36 kg (80 pounds) to 273 kg (600 pounds) at heights of 48-100 meters. The K-Max had a special rig that could carry and release four different payloads and demonstrated its ability to drop each one at a different location. The low altitude drops are more accurate than higher altitude ones and useful where the troops getting the stuff are on hilly ground that has few good helicopter landing zones. The army is also testing K-Max dropping loads from higher altitudes, using GPS guided parachutes. The army and marines are planning to have their helicopter UAVs to drop supplies via parachute to troops in isolated areas. If the army makes this work the the marines will use these delivery techniques as well.