WASHINGTON, March 17 The U.S. Marine Corps has
extended indefinitely its use of two unmanned K-MAX heavy lift
helicopters in Afghanistan, a Navy spokeswoman said, noting the
aircraft kept re-supply trucks off the road and reduced the
threat of roadside bombs.
The Marine Corps sent the new autonomous helicopters, which
were developed by Lockheed Martin Corp and
privately-held Kaman Aerospace, to Afghanistan in November 2011
for an initial, limited deployment, but has extended their use
Now, Naval Air Systems Command has decided to continue using
the aircraft indefinitely, said Jamie Cosgrove, a spokeswoman
for the Navy command, which also oversees Marine Corps aircraft.
She said there were no current plans to buy more K-MAX
helicopters, but the two aircraft in Afghanistan would remain
there "until otherwise directed."
Dan Schultz, vice president of Lockheed's Aviation Systems
business, said the two K-MAX helicopters had 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.
K-MAX was "saving lives by reducing Marines' exposure to
improvised explosive devices on cargo convoys," he said in a
statement to Reuters.
First developed to meet a "joint urgent operational need
statement" issued by the U.S. military in 2010, K-MAX can fly
autonomously over large distances, and at higher altitudes with
a larger payload than any other rotary wing unmanned aerial
system, according to Lockheed. It can accurately deliver cargo
as large as a compact car.
Unlike the popular 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.
The helicopters can also fly during bad weather, at night,
and in the rain. Last year Lockheed said the helicopters also
required two hours fewer maintenance per flight hour, which
makes them cheaper to operate.
Popular Science magazine in November named the unmanned
K-MAX helicopter to its "Best of What's New" list.
Cosgrove said Marine Corps officials were now assessing how
to use the helicopters after this deployment.
One senior Marine Corps official said the helicopter was
proving useful, but its "niche" in future Marine Corps aviation
plans was not yet clear.
U.S. forces are due to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014.