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]