Kaman developing next-generation of K-MAX unmanned aircraft system

The unmanned K-MAX supported U.S. Marines in Afghanistan and has demonstrated remotely-piloted wildland fire missions

K-MAX helicopter unmanned
Part of the Kaman and K-MAX display at HAI Heli-Expo in Atlanta, March 5, 2019.

Today the Kaman Aerospace Group, a division of the Kaman Corporation, announced at the HAI Heli-Expo in Atlanta that they are developing completely new hardware and software systems that control the unmanned K-MAX helicopter.

When the company first built the system 20 years ago they used off the shelf equipment, but since then the technology has leapt far beyond what was available in the 1990s. The redesigned kit will completely replace what was used when K-MAXs delivered thousands of loads of supplies and equipment to soldiers in Afghanistan between 2011 and 2014, carrying more than 1.5 million pounds of cargo, sometimes through areas that would be considered unacceptably risky for human pilots. Typically operating at night, these unmanned missions replaced the equivalent of 900 convoy vehicles and eliminated 46,000 hours of exposure time to IED’s, direct fire, and other threats to our troops on dangerous roads.

In 2015 a remotely-piloted K-MAX demonstrated for wildland fire officials how an optionally piloted helicopter could drop water on a simulated fire and haul cargo in an external load.

K-MAX remotely piloted dipping water
A remotely-piloted K-MAX helicopter refills a water bucket during a demonstration October 14, 2015 east of Boise, ID. K-MAX photo.

The system being developed will have the capability to fly either manned or unmanned missions. Kaman expects to offer the redesigned kits for old and new K-MAXs in 2020.

In 2016 Kaman restarted production of the K-MAX after a 13-year hiatus.

“Whether the need is night-time aerial firefighting, resupplying troops in austere environments or delivering critical supplies in support of humanitarian missions, the next generation of the unmanned K-MAX will continue to demonstrate its unmatched readiness and efficiency no matter the requirement,” stated Roger Wassmuth, Senior Director Business Development, Air Vehicles & MRO Division.

After a 13-year hiatus the K-MAX is back in production

KAMAN Aerosystems has delivered 8 of the helicopters since restarting in 2016

Above: A K-MAX helicopter under production at KAMAN Aerospace’s facility in Bloomfield, Conn. KAMAN photo.

After producing 38 K-MAX helicopters between 1991 and 2003 KAMAN Aerosystems fired up the manufacturing shops again in 2016 and delivered the 46th a few days ago. The company has committed to making a total of 15 during this production phase with the possibility of adding another 10 later. The airframes are made in Florida and the final assembly is done in Bloomfield, Connecticut.

Like the Erickson Air-Crane, the K-MAX is a purpose built aircraft designed without compromises to do one thing well. Lift external loads. They don’t carry passengers or much internal cargo. In fact there is only room for one person in the K-MAX — the pilot.

K-MAX external instrument panel
K-MAX external instrument panel. KAMAN photo.

From the front it is very narrow, allowing the pilot to easily look straight down at the ground from both windows. While hovering over a target the pilot can see the external instrument panel; critical gauges and annunciators that are always visible during vertical reference flying.

The K-MAX’s on U.S. Forest Service Type 1 helicopter contracts have allowable payloads of 4,847 to 5,065 pounds. That translates to about 605 to 633 gallons of water, before the weight of the bucket is accounted for, which would reduce it by one or two dozen gallons. The Incident Command System requirement for a Type 1 helicopter is a minimum of 700 gallons, yet they continue to receive contracts as a Type 1. In 2016 10 of the 36 helicopters on the contract were K-MAX’s. After the reduction to 28 helicopters in 2017 there were 8.

The USFS contract (on page 102) carves out an exception for the K-MAX when used on initial attack:

For initial attack only, Kmax operators are authorized to use any water bucket with a capacity of over 200 us gallons. This allowance is based on the limited storage compartment capacity of the aircraft and the capability of the pilot to unload the bucket when carried. Higher capacity, compact, lightweight buckets are no longer available or no longer supported. Vendors shall switch to a bucket meeting contract specifications as soon as practical, typically after the first fuel cycle.

Lockheed has worked with KAMAN to configure at least two K-MAX helicopters to be remotely piloted or to operate autonomously. They spent months delivering cargo in Afghanistan flying pre-programed missions.

In 2015 the two companies demonstrated an optionally-piloted K-MAX near Boise, Idaho dropping water and delivering cargo.

The hour and a half demonstration included the following missions:

  • Spot drop – 100 feet
  • Spot drop – 55 feet
  • Trailing drop – 55 feet both at the demo area and at the ridge
  • Carousel delivery – 55 feet, two each to the demo area and on the ridge
  • Backhaul Cargo from the ridge – 150 feet
K-MAX Custer SD
K-MAX helicopter at Custer, South Dakota, July 8, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Roger Wassmuth, Senior Director of Business Development for KAMAN, told us that since the demonstration and the missions in Afghanistan they have improved the technology and are expecting to see the helicopter being used in the future for suppressing wildfires and inspecting or constructing power lines without a pilot in the cockpit.

Mr. Wassmuth said the K-MAX can be purchased for a little over $7 million, which he pointed out, is less than a third of what CAL FIRE expects to pay for each of their 12 new FireHawks, which are running about $24 million in the latest configuration specified by CAL FIRE.

K-MAX under production
A K-MAX under production at KAMAN Aerospace’s facility in Bloomfield, Conn. KAMAN photo.
A K-MAX helicopter drops water on the Comet Fire north of Salmon, Idaho July 28, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
K-MAX Salmon Idaho
K-MAX helicopter at Salmon, ID July 28, 2016. The open doors allow access to various systems for maintenance. The compartment is large enough to store a Bambi Bucket while ferrying. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Revised April 7, 2018 to show that the K-MAX’s on USFS Type 1 helicopter contracts have allowable payloads that are below the ICS minimum requirement for Type 1’s.

K-MAX lifts vehicles out of Grand Canyon

The two vehicles drove off the edge in 2017

Above: A K-MAX helicopter lifts a vehicle out of the Grand Canyon, March 29, 2018. NPS photo.

On March 29 a K-MAX helicopter at Grand Canyon National Park lifted two vehicles out of the inner canyon that drove off the edge in 2017. The National Park Service didn’t provide any details about how or why the vehicles ended up there, or if anyone was in them at the time, Thelma and Louise style.

K-MAX lifts vehicle grand canyon
A K-MAX helicopter lifts a vehicle out of the Grand Canyon, March 29, 2018. NPS photo.

Apparently this is a recurring project, as you can see in the video from 2009:

And in other Grand Canyon aviation news, the park’s contract helicopter has a new paint job. The MD-900/207E recently returned to the park after having all the old paint sanded off by hand. The sanding and painting took about 6 weeks.

Grand Canyon NP contract helicopter
New paint on Grand Canyon NP contract helicopter. NPS photo.

Helicopter Express sends four helicopters to Chile on Antonov AN-124

Above: An Antonov AN-124 after it arrived in Santiago, Chile carrying four helicopters. Photo by Tom Parsons of Global Supertanker.

An Antonov AN-124 arrived in Santiago, Chile Tuesday morning and unloaded three Bell 205 helicopters, one K-MAX 1200, and a flatbed truck with an attached goose-neck trailer. The Chilean government contracted with Helicopter Express out of Chamblee, Georgia to supply the equipment during the siege of wildfires that has been plaguing the country for the last several weeks.

Helicopter Express helicopters Antonov AN-124
Helicopter Express helicopters before loading onto the Antonov AN-124 at Atlanta, Georgia. Helicopter Express photo.

The helicopters and the truck were loaded onto the Ukrainian freighter at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport Monday for the flight to South America.

CNN Chile reported that one of the helicopters has night-flying capabilities.

Lockheed demonstrates four drones

Above: A remotely-piloted K-MAX prepares to demonstrate dropping water on a fire at Griffiss International Airport. Screen shot from the video below.

On November 8 Lockheed Martin showed off four drones, or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), at conference in Rome, New York. The aircraft included a backpack sized Indago 2, a Sikorsky S-76, and a K-MAX.

The K-MAX attempted to drop water on a small fire but overshot its target.

Last year near Boise, Lockheed demonstrated the remotely piloted K-MAX helicopter dropping water on a simulated fire and hauling cargo in an external load.

Salmon helibase supports Comet Fire

Above: Heli-Rappellers at Salmon, Idaho just after they were transported back to the base by a helicopter after supporting the Comet Fire. L to R: Chris Lilley, Jacob Edluna, and Matt Knott.

Thursday we stopped by the U.S. Forest Service Helibase at the airport at Salmon, Idaho. Some of the 19 USFS personnel assigned to the base were supporting the 367-acre Comet Fire 12 miles north of the airport.

Salmon helibase
Eric Ellis, Helibase Manager at the Salmon Heli-Rappeller Base.
Eric Ellis, the Base Manager who was kind enough to show us around, said they saw the lighting strike that ignited the fire on July 26. Later four firefighters from the base rappelled into the steep terrain. The helibase crew also helped to facilitate helicopter water bucket work and sling loads of equipment.

Comet Fire
The Comet Fire north of Salmon, Idaho.
At the base on Thursday was one 205++ helicopter and one K-MAX helicopter. A second 205++ and a Sikorsky were away working on fires.

Salmon helibase
One of HeliMax’s 205++ helicopters lands at Salmon, Idaho July 28, 2016 while supporting the Comet Fire north of Salmon.
Salmon is the home of the largest of the USFS rappel bases. They have two 205++ helicopters assigned that are each staffed seven days a week. The USFS is the only federal land management agency that has wildland firefighters who rappel into fires. The National Park Service has quite a few helitack personnel trained for short haul, the technique of transporting one or more people at the end of a rope attached to a helicopter, but without sliding down the rope.

Salmon helibase
A K-MAX helicopter at the Salmon Helibase July 28. An hour or so later it was dropping water on the Comet Fire
An hour or so after we photographed the K-MAX helicopter at the base, we saw the same ship dropping water on the Comet Fire.

K-MAX Comet Fire
A K-MAX helicopter drops water on the Comet Fire north of Salmon, Idaho July 28, 2016.

Salmon helibase
After they were declared surplus by the military, the Salmon Heli-Rappellers obtained these pieces of helicopters and spent $10,000 each to have them configured exactly like the actual rappel ships in order to make their training as realistic as possible.
 

All photos are by Bill Gabbert

Remotely operated K-MAX helicopters relocated to Arizona

Above: The Marine Corps’ first two Kaman K-MAX Helicopters arrived at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., Saturday, May 7, 2016. Photo by Pfc. Beorge Melendez.

The two remotely piloted K-MAX helicopters that have been used in Afghanistan for the last several years were recently relocated to Yuma, Arizona. These two helicopters are probably similar to the optionally-piloted K-MAX that was demonstrated to wildland fire personnel last October near Boise when it dropped water on a simulated fire and delivered external cargo.

Below are the details, as provided by the Marine Corp, about the two K-MAX ships that are now in Arizona.

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MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. – The Marine Corps’ first two Kaman K-MAX Helicopters arrived at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz. May 7, 2016.

The Kaman K-MAX Helicopter is very unique in many different ways, such as its purpose and design. It is a helicopter with interlinking rotors whose primary mission is to provide cargo load operations with a maximum lift payload of 6,000 pounds.

“The most unique thing is this aircraft can fly itself,” said Jerry McCawley, a Chief Pilot and Flight Safety Engineer with Lockheed Martin. “These two particular aircraft were over in Afghanistan for almost three years flying unhanded, and moving almost five million pounds of cargo, keeping numerous convoys off the road, preventing any roadside attacks.”
The K-MAX will utilize MCAS Yuma’s training ranges in both Arizona and California, and will soon have an integral part in testing and operations.

As MCAS Yuma continues expanding its scope of operations, the K-MAX will continue revolutionizing expeditionary Marine air-ground combat power in all environments.
“It’s very resilient and can fly day or night,” said McCawley. “It’s out here in Yuma for future test and development with the Marines. It’s great now, and it’s only going to get better.”

The K-MAX will be added to MCAS Yuma’s already vast collection of military aircraft, strengthening training, testing and operations across the Marine Corps.