Two Lockheed Martin/Kaman K-Max unmanned helicopters have logged more than 380 flight hours and carried more than 750,000 lb. of cargo to resupply U.S. Marine Corps outposts since beginning operations in Afghanistan in mid-December.

The six-month deployment is aimed at demonstrating how unmanned cargo aircraft can be used to take vehicle convoys off dangerous roads. Operations are being funded month-by-month, and Lockheed and Kaman say they are ready to support an extended deployment.

The helicopters are flying autonomously to two forward locations from a main operating base, carrying food, water, ammunition and other supplies. Loads have averaged 2,500-3,000 lb., but have included a 4,200-lb. generator, says Jim Naylor, director of business development for aviation systems at Lockheed Martin Mission Systems & Sensors.

“The aircraft is controlled from the main operating base and flies autonomously to the forward operating base, where it can land or drop the load,” he says. While the K-Max can complete the entire mission autonomously, “in most cases someone controls the aircraft [at the forward base] and nudges it to where they want the load dropped.” The U.S. Navy also has begun retrograde operations, bringing loads back from the forward bases.

One aircraft flies at a time and together they are averaging five flights a day and 95% availability, reaching six a day in March when the mission-capable rate was 100%. Maintenance man-hours are averaging less than 1.2 per flight hour, dropping to 0.6 in March, Naylor says.

“We are demonstrating how low-cost and easy to maintain the K-Max is,” he says. “We are demonstrating the need for the capability, and that the K-Max is the right platform. It’s a tough mission, but repetitive lift is what this aircraft was designed for.”

As a next step, Lockheed and Kaman are using a third K-Max in the U.S. as a testbed to develop “platform-agnostic” capabilities for the cargo mission under the U.S. Army’s Autonomous Technologies for Unmanned Air Systems (Atuas) joint concept technology demonstration. “Some of these we could move over to the Marine Corps contract,” Naylor says.

Atuas will demonstrate a small beacon that can be placed on the ground at the delivery site. The aircraft will autonomously find the beacon, sense its direction and put down the load a pre-set distance away, avoiding the need for a soldier to take control of the air vehicle at the remote drop site.

The program also will demonstrate a ladar-based delivery-site selection system. “No one will need to be there,” says Keith Arthur, the lead for teaming and intelligent systems in the systems integration division of the Army’s Aviation Applied Technology Directorate. “They will give it GPS coordinates, the system will scan the area and choose the spot,” he says.

Lockheed and Kaman also have bid for the Office of Naval Research’s Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System (Aacus) program, with contract awards expected this month. Aacus plans to develop a capability enabling unmanned vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft to drop off and pick up loads in adverse weather and harsh terrain.

The platform-agnostic system will allow the aircraft to autonomously avoid obstacles, select an unprepared landing site and touch down precisely, with the ability to react to unplanned events. The system also will communicate with ground personnel, who will be able to select a desired landing site.