September 25, 2013      

An exhibition battle for the Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS) program has broken out at the Modern Day Marine show in Quantico this week. The contenders: seasoned Lockheed Martin/Kaman?s K-MAX?an unmanned version of the Afghanistan War cargo supplier?and Boeing?s H-6U Little Bird.

Though the K-MAX has been in Marine use in Afghanistan since late 2011, only one of the original two sent by Lockheed is still running food and supplies from Camp Bastion in the Helmand Province. The other crashed during a supply run in June.

Kaman UAS product group general manager, Terry Fogarty, confirmed that regardless of which company wins the unmanned lift/ISR capability bid, at least one K-MAX will remain in use until the last Marines leave Afghanistan, sometime in 2014.

Potentially more important than the K-MAX?s 6,000 pound cargo hold is it?s past capability of on-and-off ship take offs and landings, at least in a manned capability.

?Shipboard landing is key,? Fogarty said. ?Even the Army wants to do shipboard landings.? The Army is significantly behind the Marines in developing a cargo UAS system, but had requested information for a vehicle capable of covering 300 nautical miles at 250 knots while carrying between 5,000 and 8,000 pounds of cargo last year.

While that fits in the K-MAX?s specs, it?s only a fraction of the Little Bird?s 25,000 pound capacity; its potential cargo includes Hellfire rockets and other ISR mission packages. With a limited payload, the helicopter can operate for about 12 hours straight.

Though K-MAX has a longstanding relationship with the Corps, Little Bird isn?t a complete newbie. As a subcontractor to Aurora Flight Services, Boeing has been flying the Little Bird with an on-board pilot (not manning the craft, but for FAA compliance) in preparation for a Marine evaluation. Little Bird has been unmanned since 2004, and is the first autonomous helicopter to take-off and land itself, with the help of a team of Carnegie Mellon University roboticists and aerospace experts from Piasecki Aircraft and Boeing.

Little Bird?s preparation has included take-offs and landings from ships at sea, and even a test with the French Navy last October.

It?s a pretty even battle; Little Bird doesn?t have the track record with the Corps that K-MAX does, but it also doesn?t have that crash. New flash, or tried and true? It?s a difficult decision coming out of Quantico right now.