Unmanned drones for aerial surveillance are routine now. UAV systems that can use weapons are also routine. What isn’t routine yet is cargo resupply, but the Marines were asking for it in Afghanistan. That’s no easy task, since the country’s geography really hates helicopters. Can a helicopter UAV handle Afghanistan’s high altitude terrain, and show that it has what it takes to get its cargo exactly where it needs to go? The Marines thought so. Adm. Bill Shannon, NAVAIR Program Executive Officer for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons, says:
“We are trying to get this much needed capability to the warfighter as quickly as possible… By evaluating two different systems, we have the ability to accelerate development of technology and use it immediately to support the warfighter while maintaining competition.”
From its inception, the competition has been a battle between Lockheed Martin’s larger-capacity but shorter-endurance K-MAX, and Boeing’s quiet, ultra long-endurance A160T Hummingbird. K-MAX won, and the Marines’ cargo UAV experiment began. It’s still going.
Contracts & Key Events
FY 2012 – 2013
K-MAX wins; Contract extensions.
Sept 25/13: AACUS. Defense News covers Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s competing designs for the USMC’s follow-on Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS) program, as they prepare for the February 2014 evaluation at Quantico.
Boeing has stepped away from the A160, and will rely on its unmanned H-6U Little Bird helicopter. It has been used as a test platform since 2004 in the USA and in Europe, landing on a moving trailer and performing at-sea testing for France. It can be armed, or it can carry very little and fly for up to 12 hours. Its “optionally piloted” feature is especially handy for complying with civil flight regulations when that’s necessary.
Lockheed Martin will continue to offer the K-MAX. Just 1 is left in Afghanistan after the June 5/13 crash, but Lockheed Martin hopes to extend its Camp Bastion stay to 2014. The K-MAX doesn’t offer the same proven at-sea capability yet, being limited to manned landings in the 1990s. Lockheed Martin and Kaman may want to fix that before February.
The US Army remains behind, despite an RFI in January 2012, and tests of an unmanned H-60 Black Hawk in November 2012 and May 2013. The House Armed Services Committee wants a report by February 2014 re: the Army’s cargo VTUAV plans. Sources: Defense News, “USMC Unmanned Lift Competition Taking Shape” | Boeing: Unmanned Little Bird.
June 5/13: Crash. One of the USMC’s 2 K-MAX VTUAVs crashes during an autonomous resupply mission at Camp Leatherneck near Kandahar. Defense Update.
March 27/13: Lockheed Martin in Owego, NY receives a $6.7 million firm-fixed-price contract modification, paying to support the 2 K-MAX UAS systems supporting the Marine Corps in Afghanistan through September 2013. All funds are committed immediately.
Work will be performed in Patuxent River, MD (10%) and outside the United States (90%). US Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, MD manages the contract (N00019-11-C-0013).
March 18/13: extension? NAVAIR spokesperson Jamie Cosgrove tells Reuters that “there were no current plans to buy more K-MAX helicopters, but the two aircraft in Afghanistan would remain there “until otherwise directed.”
A Lockheed Martin YouTube video describes the extension as “indefinite,” though the contracts will still need to be put in place. It’s reasonably likely that the 2 K-MAX UAVs will remain in theater until the USA ends its full military mission at the end of 2014. Reuters | Lockheed Martin YouTube.
Oct 1/12: extension. Lockheed Martin Corp. in Owego, NY receives an $8.9 million firm-fixed-price contract modification, to operate and maintain 2 K-MAX cargo UAS deployed to support the Marine Corps in Afghanistan. Although the Pentagon announcement says that the contract ends in March 2013, Lockheed Martin confirms that this is the firm contract for the July 2012 announcement, which does include an option to extend to Sept 30/13. all contract funds will expire at the end of the current fiscal year, which is more or less immediately.
Work will be performed in various locations outside the continental US (90%) and Patuxent River, MD (10%), and is expected to be complete in March 2013. US Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, MD manages the contract (N00019-11-C-0013).
July 31/12: extension. Lockheed Martin announces a 2nd extension for K-MAX service in Afghanistan. It adds an additional 6 months to the end of March 2013, and includes an option to extend its time through to the end of the fiscal year on Sept 30/13.
The firm updates K-MAX statistics to 485 sorties, 525 hours in flight, and more than 1.6 million pounds of cargo since it arrived in theater in November 2011. In May, the aircraft performed a historic “hot hook-up,”where soldiers on the ground attach cargo to the unmanned aircraft while it’s hovering above. That capability is now used regularly to perform retrograde missions, sending cargo back on the return flight as well.
K-MAX extension #3
May 9/12: Extended. Lockheed Martin announces that their K-MAX contract has been extended by 3-4 more months, until the end of the fiscal year on Sept 30/12. They also report that their 2 K-MAX VTUAVs have now delivered more than 1 million pounds of cargo in-theater:
“They have been keeping a steady pace of six missions per day, with record load deliveries ranging from a single 4,200-pound sling load to 28,800 pounds lifted in a single day. During operations in Afghanistan, previously scheduled to end in June, the aircraft has met or exceeded all expectations with less than one maintenance man-hour per flight hour.”
K-MAX extension #2
October 5/11: USN PEO Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons, Rear Adm. Bill Shannon, approves Lockheed Martin & Kaman’s K-MAX unmanned helicopter for a contract extension and 6-month deployment. K-MAX will fly for the US Marines in Afghanistan, beginning in November 2011.
K-MAX picked, 6-month extension
FY 2006 – 2011
K-MAX vs. A160T; Initial deployment contracts for both; K-MAX QRA.
(click to watch video)
September 6/11: K-MAX. K-MAX Quick-Reaction Assessment (QRA) successfully completed. A formal report will be released by Commander Operational Test and Evaluation Force (COMOPTEVFOR) within 30 days.
Boeing told Aviation Week that their 2 A160Ts are still being prepared, with their QRA to be scheduled by the Navy “at a later date.”
August 18/11: QRA of 1 K-MAX is proceeding this week at Yuma Proving Ground, AZ. The system has to deliver 6,000 pounds of slung load cargo per day. The 2nd unit has been set aside for future operations or tests.
Earlier this summer the Navy and Marine Corps Multi-Mission Tactical Unmanned Air Systems program office (PMA-266) completed Electromagnetic Environmental Effects (E3) testing at the Pax River, MD facility. The A160T tests were to follow, since Boeing’s VTUAV was grounded between September 2010 and June 2011, following a crash in Belize. Bay Net.
Dec 3/10: US Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, MD issues a pair of contracts for unmanned cargo helicopters. This contract was competitively procured via an electronic RFP, but instead of choosing a winner between the 2 proposals submitted, NAVAIR provides contracts to both competitors, as part of an explicit strategy to ensure that cargo UAS are available for deployment in Afghanistan in Sept/Oct 2011. Both systems face a demanding set of QRA tests in summer 2011, before the Navy picks a winner and exercises the appropriate contract option for an initial 6-month deployment to support the US Marine Corps.
Team Lockheed Martin Corp. in Owego, NY receives a $45.8 million firm-fixed-price contract for 2 of its K-MAX unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), 3 ground stations, any required modifications, and pre-deployment readiness activities including QRA. All contract funds will expire at the end of the current fiscal year, on Sept 30/10. Work will be performed in Owego, NY (90%), and Bloomfield, CT (10%), and is expected to be complete in August 2011 (N00019-11-C-0013).
Boeing subsidiary Frontier Systems, Inc. receives a $29.9 million firm-fixed-price contract for 2 of its A160T Hummingbird unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), any required modifications, 3 ground stations, and pre-deployment readiness activities including QRA. All contract funds will expire at the end of the current fiscal year, on Sept 30/10. Work will be performed in Irvine, CA (50%), and Mesa, AZ (50%), and is expected to be complete in August 2011 (N00019-11-C-0014). See also US NAVAIR | Boeing | Aviation Week.
Initial deployment contracts
Oct 11/10: A160. Boeing announces that it will submit its A160T for US NAVAIR’s cargo UAS service RFP. The structure of the contract would have contractor employees operate and maintain the UAVs, but use the military would own them, and would use its command structure for mission orders. Boeing already has its ScanEagle UAVs operating as a contracted service for the Navy and Marines; likely competitors include the Lockheed/Kaman K-MAX, with Northrop Grumman’s Bell 407-derived Fire-X as an outside possibility. Boeing | NAVAIR solicitation #N00019-10-R-0020.
May 4/10: K-MAX. The K-MAX Team announces the results of late April 2010 cargo airdrop tests with the U.S. Army’s Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC). The 11 cargo airdrop tests took place at altitude from 300-400 feet above ground level, using the Army’s low cost Low Altitude Cross Parachute, which is used for payloads between 80-600 pounds.
Kaman used its 4-hook carousel for the drops, and during one flight, demonstrated 4 airdrops in a single mission. The team is considering future tests from high altitude using GPS-guided Joint Precision Airdrop Systems (JPADS) loads. Lockheed Martin.
March 9-11/10: A160. Boeing’s A160T performs trials in response to a solicitation from the US Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory. The USMC wanted an unmanned helicopter that can deliver at least 2,500 pounds of cargo from one simulated forward-operating base, to another 75 nautical miles away, in 6 hours.
The A160T completed 7 test flights at Dugway Proving Ground, UT during the demonstration. highlights included a 2-minute hover at 12,000 feet with a 1,250-pound sling load, a nighttime delivery to a simulated forward operating base, and a set of 2 round trips of 150-nautical-miles carrying 1,250-pound sling loads, with the A160T operating autonomously on a pre-programmed mission. Boeing release.
Feb 8/10: A160. The joint Kaman/Lockheed K-MAX unmanned variant completes its tests at Dugway Proving Ground, UT. Boeing’s A160T follows, and conducts a similar set of tests. One change is thrown in as an option by the Kaman/ Lockheed team: the helicopter has a 4-hook carousel, which enables multi-load deliveries in a single flight. One one mission, the K-MAX flew with a total of 3,450 pounds to 3 pre-programmed delivery coordinates, autonomously releasing a sling load at each location, then performing the 4th load delivery under manual control by a ground operator, per the customer’s request. Lockheed Martin.
Nov-Dec 2009: K-MAX. The Kaman/ Lockheed team flight-tests the unmanned K-MAX helicopter in restricted air space at Yuma Proving Ground, AZ. The UAS repeatedly performs autonomous flight with different loads at altitudes as high as 15,000 ft DA, flies night operations, and performs multiple cargo drops at beyond line of sight distances.
Aug 10/09: A160. Boeing receives a $500,000 contract from the U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory to demonstrate the company’s A160T (YMQ-18A) Hummingbird for the Marines’ Immediate Cargo Unmanned Aerial System Demonstration Program. The Marines are studying the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in lieu of trucks and personnel to deliver supplies. The USMC’s objective is to move 20,000 pounds of cargo in a 24 hour period, over a round trip distance of 150 nautical miles.
This is a small amount, but it’s a potentially significant award. Supplying small forward operating bases using trucks requires escorting forces, and exposes their convoys to the threat of mines. The standard solution is helicopter drop-off, but every force in theater is short of helicopters, and the heavy helicopters that can carry meaningful loads in Afghanistan’s high altitudes and heat are very expensive to buy. The A160T can be rather less expensive to buy, works at high altitudes, and its rotor technology and lower vehicle weight make it cheaper to operate – if it can maintain the same crash rate as manned helicopters. Success in this area could open up a multi-service, or even an international, market niche.
In flights that will take place by February 2010, Boeing will demonstrate that the A160T can deliver at least 2,500 pounds of cargo from one simulated forward-operating base to another in fewer than 6 hours per day, for 3 consecutive days.
The A160T will be competing for this role, against the Lockheed Martin/Kaman K-MAX optionally-manned intermeshed rotor UAV, which received a similar $860,000 contract to Kaman Aerospace. The larger 5,100 pound K-MAX has a lifting capacity of 6,000 pounds, but does not have the A160T’s endurance. Its rotor design means that it can be dangerous to ground personnel, if approached from the sides while the rotors are moving. Boeing release | Lockheed Martin release | Aviation Week.
July 2009: The Kaman/Lockheed team uses its K-MAX UAV to lift 3,000-pound loads to 15,000 ft. in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.
November 2008: The Lockheed/Kaman team repeats its unmanned K-MAX demonstration to the US Marine Corps in Quantico, VA.
April 2008: The Lockheed/Kaman team successfully demonstrates the Unmanned K-MAX helicopter to the Army during 45 minutes of operation at Ft. Eustis, VA. The K-MAX UAS demonstrates autonomous take-off and landing, pick-up and delivery of a 3,000-pound sling load, and the ability to replan and detour the aircraft mid flight to accommodate changes to mission.
* USN ONR – Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility Systems (AACUS). A research program to develop next-generation autonomous helicopter control capabilities, which appears to be a successor UAV program now. See also FBO solicitation.
* DID – A160 Hummingbird: Boeing’s Variable-Rotor VTUAV. FOCUS article covers the platform, and the program.
* Kaman – K-MAX. Manned version.
* Lockheed Martin – K-MAX. Unmanned version.
* Boeing – Unmanned Little Bird
News & Views
* Washington Post (Aug 7/14) – Why pilots couldn’t stop a Marine Corps drone helicopter from crashing. Forecast 280 degree headwind became a 140 degree tailwind, and belated attempts to turn the helicopter into the wind set up oscillations in the load that brought the helicopter down in a heap. The tail then burst into flames.
* Australia’s Business Insider (April 22/14) – A New Robotic System Turns Regular Navy Helicopters Into Unmanned Drones. Discusses Near Earth Autonomy’s system.
* IEEE Spectrum (Sept 19/13) – Robocopters to the Rescue: The next medevac helicopter won’t need a pilot. Covers and explains an effort by Carnegie Mellon University’s Telemedicine & Advanced Technology Research Center, Piasecki Aircraft, and Boeing (H-6 Little Bird).
* Boeing (Jan 29/13) – Unmanned Little Bird: Flexible autonomy from land and sea
* Flight International (May 16/11) – Elbit to supply ‘Flying Elephant’ cargo UAS. For Israel. It’s a parafoil with GPS guidance, and a 1 tonne wheeled cargo pallet. It won in part due to its simplicity and speed of deployment. Compare and contrast.