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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

USMC Looks at K-Max in Afghanistan to September 2013; Wider Mission Profile Possible

By Andrew Drwiega, Military Editor

The U.S. Marine Corps is not letting go of its K-Max unmanned aerial system (UAS). Having deployed two K-Max K-1200 UAS and three ground control stations in November 2011, with the aim of trailing them until May 2012, that deadline was extended up to the end of the fiscal year of Sept. 30, 2012. However, USMC has just issued a further extension of another six months beyond that (with an option for a further six months) which could keep the capability in-theatre until September 2013—which will mean nearly a two-year deployment.

The two-ship deployment had by the end of July 2012 clocked-up 485 sorties, flying 525 hours and lifting over 1.6 million pounds of cargo, with an average of around 4,500 lbs of cargo per mission. Flights were conducted during the night.

The unmanned K-Max is a joint venture between the aircraft manufacturer Kaman Aerospace and Lockheed Martin, which provides the mission management and control system. It was fielded as a result of a Joint Urgent Operational Need identified by the USMC in 2010.

In May this year, Marines attached cargo to the UAS while it hovered above them—a ‘first’ during the deployment. This had not been tried before in 20 years of K-Max operations. This success gave the Marines the capability to send cargo back and not just receive it as had been the case to date.

Speaking from Naval Air Systems Command, Patuxent River on July 10, NAVAIR Commander Vice Admiral David Architzel stated: “Every time you can eliminate even a portion of a convoy, you eliminate the possibility of someone losing their life from an IED on the roads.” He further praised the integration of the project.

“We accomplished our mission, collected test data and proved that Cargo UAS is a viable capability,” said Major Kyle O’Conner, the commander of the VMU-1 cargo detachment, whose mission was not only to fly routine scheduled cargo missions to build data but be of practical use to the Marines in their daily fight through external cargo delivery.

O’Conner highlighted the experienced reliability of the K-Max: “It was fully mission capable 90 percent of the time.” Bad weather and maintenance accounted for the other 10 percent. However he revealed that their maintenance figures indicated “less than two hours needed per flight hour” which he said was a low cost.

Missions lasted around one hours with a 20-minute turnaround time during which the aircraft was shut down, refuelled, the cargo hooked up and then restarted. It allowed for around six sorties per night.

Feedback from the field included challenges in the areas of flight clearance approvals to changes in the original plan, safety zone restrictions and the over-simplification of the operator interface. According to O’Conner: “The challenge was that we had a simplified system with highly trained operators who could have handled a lot more control of the UAS ... however we made a conscious decision to stick with the simplified system because we wanted to validate the concept as written.” No bad thing—better to have the ability to increase the complexity rather than be overloaded from the start [Ed].

O’Conner’s further suggestions included the development of a standardized platform with modular components. He said that mission width could be expanded by the addition of a camera pod for ISR missions, a hook and long line for cargo pick-up, long-range fuel pods and the potential weaponization of the platform.

Related: Unmanned News

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