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Battle-tested Marine Corps’ drone to hit the commercial market

When the U.S. Marine Corps deployed the unmanned K-MAX helicopter to Afghanistan in 2011, the cargo-hauling aircraft was only scheduled to stick around for a six-month trial. But, the Marines loved it so much they kept two K-MAX choppers in service for nearly three years, moving roughly 4.5 million pounds of gear, in dangerous or low-visibility conditions.

While the Marines’ K-MAX helos is now in storage awaiting its next mission, a commercial version of the helicopter could soon hit the market. K-MAX maker Kaman Aerospace (KAMAN) has announced it is reopening its K-MAX production line more than ten years after producing the last aircraft. The company’s first aircraft to roll off the line will be a single-seat version piloted by humans. Although, a commercial offering of the unmanned, drone version isn’t likely too far behind, a Kaman representative says.

The company’s first customers—which could emerge as soon as early 2016—will likely be contractors that help battle wildfires like the ones ravaging the U.S. West Coast.

 

In 2015, Kaman conducted an aerial firefighting demonstration for the Department of the Interior in upstate New York. Later this year, the company plans to host another demo near Boise, Idaho, to prove the platform’s effectiveness in a different set of terrain conditions. If that goes well, the first commercial sales of unmanned K-MAX helicopters likely won’t be far behind.

The popular aircraft has been around since 1999, but the unmanned variation of the cargo-hauler didn’t really come into its own until Kaman partnered with defense contractor Lockheed Martin (LMT) in 2007. Kaman provided the vehicle while Lockheed contributed its deep expertise in avionics and autonomous systems to produce a full-sized drone helicopter. The high-performing aircraft is capable of carrying up to 6,000 pounds via sling loads suspended from the aircraft’s belly.

During the time K-MAX was developed, U.S. supply convoys in Afghanistan and Iraq had become regular and vulnerable targets for insurgent ambushes. As a result, the Marine Corps took an interest in military-grade helicopters, like the K-MAX, that could bypass roads altogether. Once in Afghanistan, the helicopter proved a reliable platform, completing its mission 94% of the time, says Terry Fogarty, general manager of the UAS product group at Kaman Aerospace. Unhindered by the need for visibility, the autonomous K-MAX could operate all night long and in weather conditions that would ground most human pilots.

The Marines loved it so much they didn’t want to let it go when its six-month demonstration was complete, and instead kept two helos in service until the Marine Corps mission wound down in 2014. “Really the only reason those aircraft came home is because the Marine Corps. came home,” Fogarty says.

Meanwhile, demand for the conventional K-MAX has been building in the market for a few years, Fogarty says. Kaman originally decided to close the K-MAX production line more than a decade prior for purely economic reasons when orders from its primary customers in the forestry industry slowed. But over the past two years demand for a cargo hauler with a low operating cost has reemerged, convincing the firm to reboot production. The company already has deposits in hand from two customers, Rotex Helicopter AG based in Liechtenstein and Atlanta-based Helicopter Express, for manned versions of aircraft.

However, the company’s unmanned K-MAX helicopter hasn’t gone unnoticed. either At last year’s AUVSI convention—one of the robotics industry’s biggest global trade shows—the Department of the Interior approached KAMAN about turning the K-MAX platform into an unmanned aerial firefighter.

For firefighting operations—as in war zone logistics—the K-MAX’s appeal is obvious, Fogarty says. Manned aerial firefighting operations can only operate for roughly 8 hours a day, when daylight visibility is at its greatest. A robotic K-MAX could operate around the clock in the most dangerous areas without putting human pilots at risk.

 

It could also open the door to further commercial sales of the unmanned K-MAX to customers in other tough industries. For instance, logging, oil and gas industries—or any other enterprise that requires moving equipment in austere environments where manned aviation is either too dangerous or expensive—could find great use for the aircraft.

Kaman has yet to ink a commercial contract for an unmanned version of K-MAX, but interest in the robotic platform continues to grow. At the Paris Air Show last month several firefighting authorities from around the globe approached Kaman about the prospect of a commercially available K-MAX, Fogarty says. Moreover, those currently buying manned versions of K-MAX also retain the option of upgrading to the unmanned platform down the road.

“Really what reopened production was the demand for the commercial manned version, but we can take a manned K-MAX, put a kit in it, and make it unmanned,” Fogarty says. “So it’s appealing to these guys as they’re looking to the future.”

That’s a strong selling point for customers unsure about investing in large unmanned platforms like K-MAX, while the Federal Aviation Administration decide on regulations governing those type of vehicles.

“The FAA has spent a lot of time on unmanned aircraft that are 55 pounds and under, but at some point they’ll address unmanned aircraft that are the size of a K-MAX,” Fogarty says. When that happens, the ongoing transition of sophisticated, autonomous drone technology from realm of national defense to the world of commercial operations won’t just apply to small camera-equipped drones but to full-sized utility aircraft as well.

The market for unmanned aircraft that can do more than simply collect data is potentially vast, Fogarty says, and a stamp of approval from the U.S. Marine Corps certainly doesn’t hurt K-MAX’s marketability. “The Marine Corps has deployed this technology to actually do things,” he says. “And we’re going to build off their example whether it’s carrying water or cargo or anything else.”