The U.S. Marine Corps, eager to reduce the number of troops exposed to roadside bombs laid to ambush convoys in Afghanistan, took a step Aug. 5 toward producing unmanned helicopters to deliver supplies to forward operating bases (FOBs) in that rugged country. Kaman Helicopters and Lockheed Martin Corp’s Systems Integration division received $860,000 to demonstrate their unmanned K-MAX. The Marines gave Boeing Co. a separate $500,000 contract to demonstrate its A160T Hummingbird.
The Corps wants a nearly autonomous helicopter that can deliver 10,000 lbs of cargo in sling loads within 24 hours to a range of 150 nm, hover either in or out of ground effect at 12,000 feet density altitude and fly at 15,000 feet with a full load of cargo. In a Request for Proposals, the Marines said that the goal was to find a machine that could do all that by February 2010. But in meetings with the companies, Corps officials avoided calling the demonstrations a fly-off, an industry official told Rotor & Wing.
The manned version of the K-MAX, a 5,100-lb helicopter that can lift 6,000 lbs of external load at sea level, has seen use in logging and construction since 1994. The far lighter Hummingbird — about 2,500 lbs empty — was designed for reconnaissance, but Boeing says it will demonstrate that the aircraft can carry at least 2,500 lbs of cargo the required distance in fewer than six hours.
The Marines haven’t said whether they’ll actually buy either entry, but industry officials expect the service to procure anywhere from 12 to 70 unmanned cargo re-supply helicopters once the technology is proven. Winning all or part of such a deal could be far more lucrative than that: the Army also wants such a system, and while it doesn’t have a similar program yet, its need could far outstrip the number the Marines might buy. — By Richard Whittle