K-MAX helicopter converted to unmanned aircraft system

K-MAX, side
K-MAX at Custer, SD, July 10, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Of the 38 K-MAX helicopters that were built, eight are on exclusive use contract with the federal government for wildland firefighting. The U.S. Forest Service likes them because they feel like they can claim they are contracting with Type 1 helicopters even though they almost but not quite meet the minimum standards for Type 1 status, and for the fact that they are much less expensive than fully qualified Type 1 helicopters. The eight ships are operated by Central Copters, Heliqwest, Mountain West Helicopters, Rainier Heli International, Swanson, and Timberline.

Two other K-MAX helicopters have been converted for the military by Lockheed Martin Corporation and Kaman Aerospace Corporation into an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) capable of autonomous or remote controlled cargo delivery. Its mission: battlefield cargo resupply for the U.S. military. The two ships have flown more than 1,000 missions in Afghanistan and hauled more than 3 million pounds of cargo that would have otherwise been transported by trucks, which are vulnerable to roadside bomb attacks. One goal is to save lives by reducing Marines’ exposure to improvised explosive devices on cargo convoys.

The helicopters were sent to Afghanistan in November, 2011 for an initial, limited deployment, but have been extended several times. Naval Air Systems Command has decided to continue using the aircraft there indefinitely.

Unlike Predator drones, which are remotely piloted, K-MAX helicopters follow a pre-programmed route using Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates, and require human intervention only to get started.

It remains to be seen if UAS or UAV aircraft could feasibly be used on fires to drop water or deliver external loads.

K-MAX, front

K-MAX hauls brush and timber from urban area in Utah

K-MAX at Sandy, Utah
K-MAX at Sandy, Utah. Screen grab from KSL video.

A K-MAX helicopter is being used in an urban area near Sandy, Utah to haul away brush and trees that hand crews cut in an area near homes. Thanks to a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service, the crews spent about 800 hours cutting and spraying brush to reduce the threat from wildfires. KSL has a video and still images of the project.

The K-MAX in the picture below from July 10, 2012, is operated by Swanson Group Aviation and was assigned to Custer, SD last year,

K-MAX helicopter, N161KA
K-MAX at Custer, SD. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Photos of aircraft on Fern Lake Fire

Minden's Tanker 48 dropping on the Fern Lake Fire. Photo by Paul Filmer
Minden’s Tanker 48 dropping on the Fern Lake Fire. Photo by Paul Filmer

Paul Filmer took some excellent photos of aircraft working on the Fern Lake Fire in Rocky Mountain National Park west of Estes Park, Colorado, December 4, 2012. The photo above is the first one I can remember seeing of an air tanker dropping with snow in the background.

We thank Paul for allowing us to use his photos. You can see a couple of dozen more that photos he took December 4 at his web site. More information about the Fern Lake Fire can be found at Wildfire Today.

Air-Crane drafting water from a "pumpkin" on the Fern Lake Fire, Photo by Paul Filmer
Helicopter Transport Services’ Skycrane drafting water from a “pumpkin” on the Fern Lake Fire, Photo by Paul Filmer
HeliQuest Aviation's KMAX on the Fern Lake Fire. Photo by Paul Filmer
HeliQuest Aviation’s K-MAX on the Fern Lake Fire. Photo by Paul Filmer