It takes the right elements to create a life-saving capability for the combat zone, as discovered after the first cargo resupply unmanned aerial system, or CRUAS, deployment made aviation history.
Naval Air Systems Command, the Marine Corps and industry partners found the right mix when they integrated a video game controller, rugged laptop and a KMAX K-2000 commercial, heavy-lift helicopter converted to a UAS, with a fast-track contracting and technical strategy. They then deployed a Marine detachment with Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron (VMU) 1 to test it in Afghanistan from December 2011 through May 2012.
The result was a capability that exposes fewer warfighters to the risk of roadside improvised explosive devices, called IEDs, and hostile fire.
"This is a great example of integration while fulfilling the urgent needs of the warfighter," said NAVAIR Commander Vice Adm. David Architzel as he opened the seventh Meet the Fleet post-deployment debrief here July 10. "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."
Hosted by the Navy and Marine Corps Multi-Mission Tactical Unmanned Air Systems program office (PMA-266), the Marine detachment shared their challenges and recommendations with about 350 NAVAIR employees.
"We accomplished our mission, collected test data and proved that Cargo UAS is a viable capability," said Maj. Kyle O'Connor, officer in charge, VMU-1 Cargo Detachment.
Its two-fold mission was to gather data and deliver cargo via an external sling load.
In the commercial world, the KMAX is used for firefighting, construction and lumbering. Built as a fully operational helicopter, it requires a start-up and shut-down unlike other unmanned aerial systems, said Capt. Caleb Joiner, CRUAS mission commander.
"The reliability of the KMAX was impressive," O'Connor said. "It was fully mission capable 90 percent of the time." Inclement weather accounted for 5 percent of the downtime and maintenance and scheduling accounted for the other 5 percent, he said.
The KMAX required less than two hours of maintenance per flight hour, which equates to a low cost, he said.
"Since it was an unmanned system, we were able to conduct flights during inclement weather when other helicopters couldn't fly," O'Connor said. "We flew during the night, in the rain, dust and some wind . handling up to 4,500 lbs. of cargo per mission."
Flying only during the night, two KMAX systems flew 485 sorties, or combat mission flights, for a total of 525 flight hours, Joiner said.
Most missions lasted about one hour and included a 20-minute turnaround time. By the end of the deployment, turnaround times with cargo hook-ups took six or seven minutes to complete, Joiner said.
"The KMAX was very responsive, especially when compared to a convoy, a C-130 [Hercules] or an H-53 mission," said Joiner. "Going from towing the KMAX out of the hangar to wheels-up could take as little as 15 minutes."
The graphic user interface, or GUI, was designed for an untrained Marine to pick up and use, he said.
"The challenge was that we had a simplified system with highly trained operators who could have handled a lot more control of the UAS," O'Connor said. "However, we chose to stick with the simplified system because we wanted to validate the concept as written."
Other challenges included the size and weight of the UAS system containers, noisy generators that produced fumes and lack of a remote "kill switch" to turn the helicopter off, he said.
The detachment offered several recommendations as well.
Developing a standardized platform with modular components for several types of missions would capitalize on the KMAX's reliability, O'Connor said. For example, a camera could be for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions; a hook and long line added for cargo pick-up; missiles or rockets for strike missions; or fuel pods for a long-range missions.