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Automating Logistics: Unmanned Rotary Cargo Aircraft

Logistics is dull work, but someone has to do it. Or do they? In the coming weeks the K-Max, an unmanned rotary vehicle, is due to be shipped out to Afghanistan to help the US Marine Corp resupply its bases. Rather than having to up-armour its logistic fleet in a country plagued with poor logistical capabilities and an insurgency whose weapon of choice is the Improvised Explosive Device, the Marines are, naturally, looking to the skies.

In an interview with NAVAIR, Rear Admiral Bill Shannon, Program Executive Officer of Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons, explained the deployment of the K-Max, commenting that the “K-Max has the capability to quickly deliver cargo, thus getting troops off the roads and allowing them to focus on other missions.”

Source: Wikimedia

Shannon went on to add that the office is “very excited to deploy a system that will keep our Marines and Sailors out of harm’s way and ultimately save lives.”

According to mission commander Marine Captain Caleb Joiner, the majority of the K-Max “missions will be conducted at night and at higher altitudes […] allow[ing] us to keep out of small arms range.”

Unmanned Resupply

The K-Max is a remarkable, unorthodox aircraft with counter-rotating, intermeshing side by side blades. Originally a piloted helicopter used for a variety of industrial roles, such as log transportation for the timber industry, it has been modified so that it can be controlled remotely, while retaining its manual control capacity. This unmanned ability offers the potential ability to remove the risk to its pilots as well as freeing up aircraft to perform other tasks.

From the vantage point of the K-Max manufacturers, Lockheed Martin and Kaman, its “twin counter-rotating, intermeshing main rotors eliminate the need for a tail rotor drive system”, meaning that “all engine power goes directly to the main rotors for significantly improved lift performance, [which is] critical to maintaining power and performance at high altitudes and high temperatures.”

The lack of a tail rotor reduces the distinct audio footprint traditionally associated with rotary assets. This reduced footprint will reportedly give the K-Max UAS and the warfighter a “tactical advantage during cargo delivery.” This cargo delivery is performed by a carousel, featuring four hooks which can be activated individually. The aircraft can reportedly be pre-programmed to release a load at four separate destinations during a single flight.

Glancing over the stats, the K-Max can carry a load of 6,855 lb., exceeding the 6,000 lb. US Marine and Navy requirements. The unmanned vehicle is also capable of a speed of 148.2 kph while carrying a load, with an endurance of over 12 hours. It also reportedly offers the “most efficient lift-to-fuel ratio of any helicopter in its class”, using an average of 85 gallons of fuel per hour.

Resupply Capability

In an interview with remote systems journal ‘Unmanned’, Eric Pratson, the project lead for the Unmanned Helicopter at NAVAIR, explained the potential impact of the unmanned K-Max on operations.

“A single K-Max helicopter could reduce reliance on convoys to resupply forward operating bases in Afghanistan by 6 percent. At that volume, a fleet of 16 to 20 aircraft theoretically could handle 100 percent of the resupply mission in Afghanistan.”

In simple terms, as air vehicle operator Corporal Ryan Venem summarised: “every time this aircraft delivers a payload, we’re taking one more truck off the road.”

Along with removing the threat to convoys on the ground and to pilots, an unmanned logistics platform would provide other advantages, such as allowing pilots to not use their limited flight hours flying resupply missions.

The introduction of unmanned logistical support offers many advantages, but it does potentially come with some problems, the primary of which is financial. In the current economic climate, is it cost effective to invest in a platform which is limited to one role?

Other helicopter assets which perform logistical resupply, such as the Chinook and Black Hawk, also have the capability to perform multiple roles, such as medevac or troop movement. While the K-Max and other unmanned logistical aircraft will provide a beneficial addition to the aerial logistics fleet, they should not completely replace manned aircraft.

The K-Max is not the only unmanned system designed for logistical operations with various countries – including Israel – developing alternate systems. The development of unmanned vehicles to perform logistical operations marks a continuation of the global trend of the integration of unmanned technology into modern warfare.

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