Military

UPDATED: US Marines Plan to Experiment With Fully Autonomous K-MAX Helicopters

By Dan Parsons | April 12, 2019
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Once grounded for lack of funding and official interest in continuing the program, two semi-robotic Marine Corps logistic helicopters on their way to Connecticut to have their brains enhanced.

The Marine Corps for a time operated two Kaman K-MAX enmeshed-rotor helicopters outfitted with Lockheed Martin-developed [LMT] autonomy kits to deliver tons of supplies to forward operating bases in Afghanistan. Those helicopters drew strong praise from enlisted Marines and top brass, but were eventually grounded.

Congress provided some funding in the current fiscal year to rescue those helicopters from mothballs, send them to Bloomfield, Connecticut, where Kaman is based and have them outfitted with advanced autonomous pilotage systems, according to Marine Corps Deputy Commandant for Aviation Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder.

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“Congress included more money in the fiscal 2019 budget, so they are being trucked to Connecticut to be retrofitted … with systems that will make them autonomous,” Rudder told the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on seapower April 10. “We hope that we get them back next year and that will allow us to go back and experiment more with autonomous systems.”

The Marines bought both Kaman K-Max helicopters during operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Cargo helicopters and resupply convoys of trucks bringing fuel, food, water, ammunition and medical supplies to the front lines made juicy, high-value but relatively unguarded targets for ambush by militants or roadside bomb attacks.

In Afghanistan, Marines quickly saw the advantage in sending a remotely-piloted logistics helicopter to deliver food, fuel and ammunition to far-flung forward operating bases. They could fly from point-to-point autonomously, without a pilot on board, but still required a human to monitor their progress and to route them. Despite being pleased with the K-MAX's performance in theater, Marine Corps officials eventually soured on the design, saying it was not appropriate for ship-to-shore logistics.

The Marine Corps now wants to experiment with making them more autonomous, Rudder said.

“What we have found is although you have logistics that you need to get to the right place at the right time, you also need a workhorse that just does this automatically,” Rudder said. “We’re hoping this research project helps us really get into the autonomous part of that particular system.”

“Sometimes there’s nothing unmanned about unmanned,” he added. “Some of our most precious assets right now are the folks that fly our unmanned systems. So, autonomy is key to try to alleviate the human link.”

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