Supplier Carrier: The K-MAX unmanned cargo helicopter is used to deliver supplies to troops in the war zone. (US Marine Corps)
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QUANTICO, VA. — Two of the companies competing for the Marine Corps’ unmanned lift/ISR capability are facing off on opposite sides of the display tent this week here, offering unmanned helicopter variants of traditionally manned birds.
Working as a subcontractor to Aurora Flight Sciences to compete for the Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS) program, Boeing has been flying its H-6U Little Bird helicopter unmanned, preparing for a Marine Corps evaluation in February at Quantico.
The companies are flying the Little Bird near Manassas with a pilot on board, but not controlling the aircraft, because having the pilot option helps them comply with FAA regulations, said the company’s Michael Sahag, business development for unmanned airborne systems.
Boeing has actually been flying the helicopter unmanned since 2004, including take-offs and landings on ships at sea, including on a commercial ship in July, and a test with the French Navy in October 2012.
The Little Bird has an endurance of about 12 hours with a limited payload, and can carry up to 25,000 pounds, including weapons such as Hellfire rockets and other ISR mission packages.
Just across the exhibition hall, Lockheed Martin is eager to talk about its K-MAX unmanned helicopter, which the Marines have been flying in Afghanistan since late 2011.
The company initially sent two helicopters to Afghanistan, but one crashed on a supply run near Camp Leatherneck in June, so for the moment, only one is based at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, ferrying food and supplies to Marines at far-flung outposts.
The K-MAX is capable of carrying up to about 6,000 pounds of cargo, and once flew 30,000 pounds of cargo over the course of six missions.
Terry Fogarty, general manager of the Kaman UAS product group, confirmed that the Marines plan on keeping at least one K-MAX in theater until at least 2014, when the last Marines are expected to leave Afghanistan.
He added that since Lockheed is working to win the program of record work for the unmanned AACUS effort, the K-MAX — in a manned capacity — had flown off of ships at sea back in the 1990s during operations in the Arabian Gulf.
“Shipboard landing is key,” he said. “Even the Army wants to do shipboard landings” with manned and unmanned aircraft in the future, he added.
While the Army is moving much slower than the Corps in developing an unmanned lift capability, it did conduct two flight tests of an unmanned Black Hawk in November and May at the Diablo Range in California.
And back in January 2012, the Army released a request for information for a cargo-carrying unmanned aircraft system that would be able to carry cargo up to 300 nautical miles at 250 knots while carrying 5,000 to 8,000 pounds — but they’ve been quiet about the whole idea since.
But that doesn’t means Congress isn’t paying attention.
In its markup of the fiscal 2014 defense bill, the House Armed Services Committee said its members are “concerned that the Army, despite having very similar logistical challenges [as the Marine Corps], does not have a cargo UAS program.”
Therefore, the committee wants the Army secretary to deliver a report to Congress by February about what the Army’s plans are for developing such a system.