WASHINGTON -- The fruits of the Lockheed Martin acquisition of Sikorsky continue to grow.
The companies have further merged capabilities in future vertical lift such as developing an armed Black Hawk, which Sikorsky had previously been unable to do due to policy guided by its previous parent company United Technologies.
This time Sikorsky and Lockheed have taken two major unmanned helicopters developed before the merger to demonstrate capability together that can not only be applied to military operations but also to civil applications.
On Nov. 8, while the rest of the world was glued to election news, Lockheed demonstrated, at Griffiss International Airport in Rome, New York, the optionally piloted K-MAX helicopter and the Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA) -- an S-76 commercial helicopter with fly-by-wire technology -- to show how the unmanned aircraft can be used in firefighting and search-and-rescue missions. Additionally, Lockheed used two of its unmanned aircraft vehicles -- the Indago quadcopter and the fixed-wing, throwable Desert Hawk 3.1 -- to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance.
The scenario for the demonstration centered around a camper lost in a wildfire in order to show applicability of the UAS both from a firefighting and search-and-rescue standpoint, according to Jon McMillen, who leads Lockheed’s business development for K-MAX.
The rucksack-portable, 5-lb quadcopter was first deployed to identify the fire hot spots and lines where fire retardant could be put down. It then sent coordinates where K-MAX -- carrying a sling-loaded water pail -- would need to conduct fire suppression. The K-MAX autonomously dipped its pail into a pond and flew over to the designated spots, McMillen said.
The Desert Hawk was launched from a safe area away from the fire to go find the lost camper and was able to locate him. The Desert Hawk sent the information to the K-MAX helicopter, which passed the data on to SARA. The helicopter took off, autonomously flew to a landing site it chose based on coordinates and information recorded about the surroundings in the landing zone from its sensor suite and picked up the lost camper, according to McMillen.
At the end of the demonstration, Lockheed pulled a 13-year-old boy from the crowd watching the operations to fly SARA, demonstrating its ease-of-use, McMillen added. SARA's first flight was in July 2013.
"What we were trying to show was the civil utility of how these systems can be pulled together, how they can be used and how they can provide public benefit because, in some of these environments that we are looking at, like today in forest fire scenarios, they are really only fighting fires for eight hours of the day in visible conditions. And in smoky or in night-time conditions unmanned systems could be brought to bear to help greatly reduce the impact and save lives," McMillen said. "Each year we spend about $2 billion on fighting wildfires and we see about 20 firefighters that lose their lives and this is a way that we could help reduce that significantly."
According to Igor Cherepinsky, the company’s director of autonomy programs, giving K-MAX and SARA the ability to pass information back and forth took less than a week of integration work.
The Marine Corps extensively demonstrated K-MAX cargo delivery capability in Afghanistan, returning after 33 months in mid-2014 after having hauled 4.5 million pounds of cargo and flying over 1,900 sorties.
Despite a hard landing that took one of the two K-MAX aircraft out of commission for a time, the entire deployment "surprised a lot of people in how well it performed," McMillen told Defense News earlier this year.
The Marine Corps continues to study the K-MAX’s utility to inform a future program and the Army has followed along in the process and continues to watch the effort.
While K-MAX has had success, pairing it with other capabilities such as small UAS and SARA could give it some traction with the land-based military services as they contemplate how to bring more large, unmanned, runway-independent systems into operations.
The Army, specifically, has said its next unmanned aircraft need to be runway independent. The service hasn’t had the best track record developing VTOL UAS, but as companies continue to advance capabilities internally, it may consider them more seriously to carry out missions that piloted aircraft now carry out.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.