U.S. MARINE CORPS FIND FIRST UNMANED AERIAL SYSTEM ‘RELIABLE’
25 Jul 12. 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.
NAVAIR, 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 the capability 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 (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 Eric Pratson, CRUAS integrated product team (IPT) lead from 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.
The detachment’s two-fold mission was to fly routine, scheduled cargo UAS
missions to build flight hours and gather reliability, and to support the needs of the Marine Corps by delivering 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 pilot 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 issues 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.” The KMAX handled up to 4,500 pounds of cargo per mission, he said.
Today, the KMAX remains deployed in Afghanistan flying missions operated by Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron (VMU) 2.
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 1 hour and included a 20-minute turnaround time during which a pilot climbed into the helicopter to shut it down, refuel it, hook up the cargo and then start it back up. “That was a pretty short turnaround time, and allowed us to conduct six sorties per night. We could have done more,” Joiner said.
By the end of the deployment — and after receiving permission to hover —
turnaround times with cargo hook-ups took 6 or 7 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. “Towing the KMAX out of the hangar to wheels-up, could take as little as 15 minutes.”
Deployment challenges included flight clearance approvals for changes to the original plan, safety zone restrictions associated with a UAS and the over-simplicity of the operator interface, O’Connor said.