Cargo UAVs -- Next Step, Pick and Place

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Two Lockheed Martin/Kaman K-Max unmanned cargo helicopters now in Afghanistan are to stay there indefinitely, says a Reuters story confirmed by the US Navy. The aircraft have been in country since November 2011, and are one of the success stories of fielding new technology to meet urgent operational requirements.


Photo: DoD

Resupplying remote Marine Corps forward operating bases, the two K-Maxes operated by VMU-3 have flown more than 1,000 missions and hauled more than 3 million lb of cargo that would have otherwise been transported by trucks, Lockheed's Dan Schultz tells Reuters.

US forces are to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, and whether and how the Marine Corps will use the aircraft beyond that point is not clear. But the two aircraft have firmly established the concept of cargo UAVs.

Simply carrying beans and bullets from point to point isn't challenging enough for some, however. MLB has just completed a DARPA program demonstrating precision autonomous delivery and placement of payloads using a vertical take-off and landing UAV. The company's ducted-fan V-Bat was fitted with a stereo vision system to detect and track an object's position relative to the hovering UAV and guide a 6ft-long mechanical arm to pick up and place the payload.

The video above from the DARPA demo program shows the V-Bat autonomously approaching a ladder, extending its arm and fixing a claw with payload attached to a crossbar on the ladder. The vision-system cameras are mounted on the fuselage, just above the base of the arm, and on the end of the arm. It looks pretty jerky, but it works.

The tailsitter V-Bat is suited to this task because the ducted fan enables safe hovering close to obstacles (and people, below), while the robotic arm (which can lift a 1lb load) can be stowed along the fuselage during flight. The V-Bat takes off and lands vertically, but transitions to wingborne flight and can stay aloft for up to 10hr at speeds up to 90kt.


Photo: DARPA

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