Every Helicopter in the US Military Could Soon Be a Drone

The MQ-8 Fire Scout might be the US military's marquee pilotless helicopter, but it's not the only one. A pair of R/C Kaman K-Max K-1200 choppers have proven their value resupplying forward operating bases in Afghanistan and, now, the DoD is developing a system to turn any helicopter into a remotely operated whirley bird.


Dubbed the Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System (ACCUS), this combined hardware and software suite leverages a variety of visual sensors—Electro-Optical, infrared, LIDAR—to supplement the onboard optical camera. Like a militarized Google Shopping Express, troops can easily program the chopper's course from a tablet-based mobile app. Learning the system reportedly takes as little as 15 minutes, as evidenced during a test flight held last month in Quantico, Va.

"I stood right next to the 20-year-old lance corporal. I touched the button. It is literally a one-touch app," Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, chief of the Office of Naval Research, told Defense One."Frankly, you don't even need the app."


Instead of putting pilots in harm's way when delivering vital supplies to front line troops, the ACCUS system takes care of flying, including navigating treacherous weather conditions that would ground manned missions as well as avoiding incoming enemy fire.

As the ONR's program page explains, both future and legacy helicopter platforms will be able to utilize the system:

Due to an open architecture approach for global management of mission planning data, AACUS technologies will be platform agnostic and transferrable to both new and legacy cargo unmanned aerial systems (CUASs). AACUS-enabled CUASs will rapidly respond to requests for support in all weather conditions, be launched from sea and land, fly in high/hot environments, and autonomously detect and negotiate precision landing sites in potentially hostile settings. Such missions could require significant obstacle and threat avoidance, with aggressive maneuvering in the descent-to-land phase.

With the success as last month's test flight, the ACCUS program now moves into its second phase of development. While there is no set timetable for when the system could potentially reach the battlefield, ONR researchers are already eying it as a means of delivering supplies to humanitarian and natural disaster areas. [ONR via Defense One]

The War Zone Cargo Copter That Lifts 6,000 Pounds Without a Pilot

Rugged doesn't even begin to describe Afghanistan's terrain. Delivering supplies to distant outposts over land through hostile territory is a difficult and deadly proposition—and even helicopter transports are not immune from RPG fire. So, to make essential cargo drops without risking the lives of American servicemen, Lockheed Martin simply removed the pilot.


The Kaman K-Max K-1200 "aerial truck" helicopter has been specifically designed and built as an external-lift aircraft. The vehicle features an unconventional rotor design whereby the dual props intermesh with one another as they rotate—known as a synchropter—eliminating the need for a tail rotor. An 1,800 HP Honeywell T53-17 turboshaft engine produces enough power that the K-Max can actually lift more than its own weight—5,145 pounds—hoisting 6,000 pounds of cargo at sea level. Its narrow profile is idea for loads slung beneath the vehicle with a myriad of slings, hooks, and attachments. Two K-Max helicopters have been deployed to Afghanistan to help maintain vital supply lines for the Marines. And given its strength, versatility and maneuverability, the K-1200 has been a workhorse for firefighters, as well as construction and logging industries, for more than two decades.

But for work in a war zone, Lockheed modified the K-1200 to operate via remote control—because, with a couple of tons worth of cargo swaying beneath it, the K-1200 isn't particularly quick or nimble. By removing the pilot, and necessary interfaces and life support systems, the autonomous K-1200 can fly higher and with more and heavier loads than any other helicopter in service.


Since beginning its tour in November last year, the pair of K-MAX Unmanned Multi-Mission Helicopters reliably delivered more than a million pounds of cargo. "K-MAX has proven its value to us in-theater, enabling us to safely deliver cargo to forward areas," Marine Corps Maj. Kyle O'Connor, who is overseeing the deployment, said in a press statement. "We are moving cargo without putting any Marines, Soldiers or Airmen at risk. If we had a fleet of these things flying 24-7, we could move cargo around and not put people in jeopardy."

The copters have proven so valuable, the Marines have extended their deployment twice already. The K-Max will continue to make deliveries until this September. [Wikipedia - Lockheed Martin 1, 2 - Defense Industry Daily]

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