On Saturday, the United States Marine Corps few the very first combat resupply mission using an unmanned robot helicopter. The Kaman K-MAX, delivered a sling-load of cargo to an unidentified location inside Afganistan.
The K-MAX is a pilotless version of a twin-rotor helicopter. Guided by GPS, the new robot helo weighs just 2.5 tons, but can carry an astounding 2.5 tons of cargo for up to 250 miles. The K-MAX beat out the smaller Boeing A160 Hummingbird for the demonstration contract. The successful combat flight by the K-MAX follows several test runs jointly operated by Lockheed Martin and Karman.
The shift to pilotless aircraft and helicopters are crucial to continuing operations in Afganistan, so while the K-MAX is just starting out, it looks like it will see sustained operations.
Supply lines into the country are at best dangerous with Pakistan's border recently being closed in protest over NATO airstrikes inside their country. In addition to threats from insurgents, terrain and weather conditions in Afganistan are extremely hazardous. Crews also battle fatigue trying to keep up with the pace of resupply demand.
All this points to unmanned operations as being the best way to keep the risk of human life at a minimum while still providing secure, reliable and potentially increased resupply operations to the front line troops.
Just because they are unmanned doesn't mean the Corps will be taking any risks with their newest combat tool. "Most of the [K-MAX] missions will conducted at night and at higher altitudes," said Marine Capt. Caleb Joiner, a K-MAX operator. "This will allow us to keep out of small-arms range."
Robot technology goes back for years, but is becoming an ever-increasing fixture in military operations. In 2003, Special Operations Command began using robotic gliders for small-scale deliveries and we've seen remotely operated drones take on a lot of reconnaissance and bombing raids. In 2007, the Army started experimenting in with driverless cargo trucks to help ease driver casualties.
As robot technology becomes more sophisticated, so too expect the demand to increase. After all robots are largely designed to take on the extremes - from the mundane to the most dangerous logistic jobs we have to throw at them.