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Robotic helicopter completes Afghanistan mission, back in U.S.


Marines familiarize themselves with the downward thrust of a “K-MAX” unmanned helicopter during initial testing in Helmand province, Afghanistan, on May 22, 2012. Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 2 pioneered the first unmanned, mid-flight external cargo hookups, and delivered approximately 6,000 pounds of gear in their first day of testing. (Photo by Cpl. Lisa Tourtelot/Marine Corps)

The Marines turned this spring to an awkward-looking helicopter with a needle nose to help perform a complicated mission: closing down bases in violent sections of Helmand province, Afghanistan, while Taliban insurgents launched repeated attacks on Afghan troops charged with maintaining security.

It was one of the “K-Max” helicopter drone’s last major missions, as it turns out. Lockheed Martin and Kaman Aerospace Corporation announced Thursday that the revolutionary aircraft has returned to the United States following a three-year deployment.

The K-Max first deployed to Afghanistan in 2011, one year after the Navy Department awarded a $45.8 million contract to the two companies to provide a pair of unmanned helicopters and three ground control stations. The Navy Department wanted the helos to try unmanned cargo resupply missions in a combat zone. Doing so, the logic went, would allow the Marines to cut back on the size and number of vehicle convoys needed over Afghanistan’s treacherous, explosive-riddled roads.

The Marines eventually deployed a third K-Max. The experimental aircraft had its hiccups — one of the helicopters was destroyed in a crash in June 2013 — but generally the Marines raved about its utility and dependability.

The K-Max can lift about 6,000 pounds at sea level. Loads in Afghanistan’s heat and higher elevations probably cut that back some, but the aircraft was still in heavy demand. It performed thousands of missions between late 2011 and now, carrying over 4.5 million pounds of supplies, Lockheed officials said Thursday.

The K-Max already is getting a look for other missions. The U.S. Army plans to test it in coming months at Fort Benning, Ga., in part to see how well it operates with a drone vehicle built by Lockheed and called the Squad Mission Support System, Aviation Today reported last week from the Farnborough Air Show in London. The idea is to show that unmanned equipment is capable of moving other unmanned equipment, potentially allowing U.S. troops to deliver the drone vehicle to U.S. troops in a war zone.

The K-Max also has been used in the United States to help squelch wildfires. Check out this 2012 video recorded in Durango, Colo.:

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Marine Maj. Kyle O’Connor, who led the first K-Max detachment in Afghanistan, said the Marines were less concerned with the drone helos being hacked, than with them getting hit by small-arms fire. To avoid that, they mostly flew it at night “using altitude as our friend,” O’Connor said, according to Seapower magazine.

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.

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