Afghanistan — K‑MAX: unmanned aerial alternative to convoys

HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan— Impro­vised explo­sive devices have changed the way the Marine Corps engages hos­tile forces. The need has risen for sup­plies to reach the most remote parts of Afghanistan quick­ly, reli­ably and safe­ly.

A K‑MAX heli­copter with Marine Unmanned Aer­i­al Vehi­cle Squadron 1 rests on a heli­pad pri­or to liftoff for a sup­ply mis­sion in Hel­mand province, Afghanistan, April 30.
Source: Cpl. Isaac Lam­berth
Click to enlarge

Late last year, the Corps began exper­i­ment­ing with the K‑MAX – an unmanned heli­copter, able to trans­port large amounts of car­go and reduce the need for con­voys.

With troops spread across a des­o­late coun­try with few paved roads, steep moun­tains, rocky ter­rain and abra­sive weath­er, the K‑MAX has arrived to help deliv­er sup­plies across the harsh lands of Afghanistan.

Present­ly, con­voys are exposed to many poten­tial dan­gers, such as impro­vised explo­sive devices and ambush­es. Both have claimed the lives of Marines in the past.

“The need [for an alter­nate trans­port solu­tion] came about because the Marine Corps want­ed to get trucks off the road,” said Maj. Kyle O’Con­nor, the detach­ment offi­cer in charge for Car­go Resup­ply Unmanned Air­craft Sys­tems [CRUAS], a com­po­nent of Marine Unmanned Aer­i­al Vehi­cle Squadron 1.

“They want­ed to be able to deliv­er sup­plies from one locale to anoth­er with­out putting Marines in dan­ger of IED’s,” he said. “The Marine Corps need­ed a fast, reli­able plat­form with which to deliv­er to[Combat Out­posts].”

The K‑MAX plat­form has a unique con­fig­u­ra­tion. The two sets of rotors are mount­ed side-by-side and turn in oppo­site direc­tions. Each rotor on the heli­copter is mount­ed at a slight angle to the oth­er so that the blades can spin simul­ta­ne­ous­ly with­out col­lid­ing. This con­fig­u­ra­tion allows for supe­ri­or sta­bil­i­ty and pow­er while elim­i­nat­ing the need for a tail rotor.

K‑MAX has, thus far, ful­filled the Corps’ request of trans­port­ing large amounts of car­go over great dis­tances in an expe­di­tious man­ner.

O’Con­nor explained that in the month of March alone, the K‑MAX fer­ried approx­i­mate­ly 500,000 pounds of car­go and has trans­port­ed more than 1.3 mil­lion pounds since its arrival five months ago. It has flown rough­ly 400 mis­sions in the­ater.

O’Con­nor said the K‑MAX has per­formed so well that the orig­i­nal six-month tri­al has been extend­ed in the­ater.

“It’s such a new sys­tem for the[Department of Defense] that there isn’t a whole lot of reli­a­bil­i­ty data for it,” he said. “Since it’s done so well, the deploy­ment exten­sion is going to give us more time to con­tin­ue to gath­er data on its per­for­mance and trans­port more car­go.”

The data col­lect­ed will give Corps offi­cials insight on whether to keep the K‑MAX as a per­ma­nent addi­tion to the Corps’ unmanned squadrons.

“We’re fly­ing to see if there are any issues and see if prob­lems come up,” O’Con­nor said.

While data is being col­lect­ed, new tac­tics, tech­niques and pro­ce­dures have been cre­at­ed to weave the K‑MAX into every­day oper­a­tions across Hel­mand province.

Sgt. Trevor Scar­ber­ry, an Air Vehi­cle Oper­a­tor with CRUAS said he has helped cre­ate new pro­ce­dures for the air­craft.

“Since no one has done this and it’s all brand new, we’re hav­ing to devel­op new ways of doing things,” said Scar­ber­ry, of Choctaw, Okla.

He said new pro­ce­dures have been imple­ment­ed for safe­ty, land­ing zone and air space coor­di­na­tion. One such pro­ce­dure ensures the safe­ty of ground crews unload­ing the K‑MAX once it reach­es its des­ti­na­tions. The inter­mesh­ing duel rotors spin with­in a few feet of the ground and sur­round­ing per­son­nel must be keen­ly aware of the down tilt of the rotor blades.

Even though the K‑MAX is still in its tri­al run, Scar­ber­ry said he is very pleased with the per­for­mance of the air­craft.

“The pre­ci­sion of the sys­tem is amaz­ing,” he said. “I’ve been impressed and sur­prised.”

In addi­tion to resup­ply­ing units on the ground, the K‑MAX will also sup­port the reduc­tion of inter­na­tion­al troops. While NATO forces pre­pare to with­draw from Afghanistan, the K‑MAX will be work­ing along­side them.

“As the draw­down occurs, there will be few­er vehi­cles and a greater demand for air trans­porta­tion,” O’Con­nor said. “With K‑MAX being extend­ed, we hope to use it to assist in ret­ro­grade oper­a­tions.” O’Con­nor added since Feb­ru­ary, the K‑MAX has helped ret­ro­grade equip­ment from sev­er­al com­bat out­posts and will like­ly con­tin­ue these types of oper­a­tions in the future.

Allied Com­mand Oper­a­tions