Feeds

US robochopper cargo skyhook gets another $47m

Crewless mesh-copter creeps closer to the front line

Build a business case: developing custom apps

The US Army and Marines' ongoing effort to get unmanned robot supply helicopters into service continues, with a further $47m contract award announced yesterday.

The unmanned cargo version of the Kaman K-Max helicopter. Credit: Lockheed

You can put a flyboy in there if you want one for some reason

The deal, awarded by the Army Aviation Applied Technology Directorate, will see defence mammoth Lockheed carry on in partnership with Kaman Aerospace to deliver an unmanned version of Kaman's existing, manned "intermesh" K-MAX craft, which is already in service around the world.

The intermesh design uses two main rotor discs, but unlike other more well-known craft which put the two discs at each end of the fuselage (or in some cases stacked one atop the other) the two discs spin on separate hubs right next to each other with the blades meshing. The use of two contra-rotating discs means no need to waste power on a tail rotor or thruster, and the K-MAX offers good lifting performance.

With the addition of autonomous robotic controls, the idea is to use the unmanned K-MAX for shifting supplies in such theatres as Afghanistan. Road convoys in such areas have to contend with bad or nonexistent highways, frequent sniping and ambushes and endless mines, bombs and boobytraps, meaning that they are in effect as expensive as helicopter delivery.

But manned helicopters, though much less costly in lives and injuries, are extremely expensive in money and hedged about with restrictions. The crew and their weapons, protective armour etc weigh a significant amount (eating into what can be carried and to what altitude) and have sharply, rigidly limited operating hours: then, manned cargo copters must normally be escorted by attack aircraft above Afghanistan, adding to the costs and difficulties.

All this means that autonomous unmanned cargo copters could be useful indeed for embattled US and allied troops, perhaps even more so as there would probably be much less reluctance to send the droid skyhooks in with critical supplies for forward bases which were under heavy fire at the time (on the whole manned copters will only go in under such circumstances to evacuate badly wounded soldiers).

But the robot K-MAX saw off its only serious rival, the unmanned A160T from Boeing, in competitive load-lifting trials over a year ago. The original intention by the US Marines, who kicked off the compo initially without Army involvement, was to have skyhooks in action by the end of 2010.

Now we learn that the robocopter is still in "electromagnetic environmental effects testing" and that a further demonstration "in an operationally realistic environment" must take place before any combat deployment, suggesting that the unmanned K-MAX may not reach Afghanistan this year either. Certainly there isn't much sign of any urgency from the Pentagon, with yesterday's development deal amounting to no more than the purchase price of a single manned helicopter.

The fact is that combat supply is a primary mission for both US Army and Marine aviators, and the wings-on-chest crowd probably aren't very enthusiastic about having this task taken away from them: the more so as it would very likely lead on to robotic casualty evacuation, which would remove one of the main ways for a chopper pilot to win a medal for going in under fire.

As long as pilots run aviation, there probably won't be a massive amount of impetus behind projects like the autonomous skyhook: which is a shame, as they could save a lot of lives and money – and there can't be any real doubt that they could have been in service for years by now if the effort had been made. ®

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

More from The Register

next story
You! Pirate! Stop pirating, or we shall admonish you politely. Repeatedly, if necessary
And we shall go about telling people you smell. No, not really
Major problems beset UK ISP filth filters: But it's OK, nobody uses them
It's almost as though pr0n was actually rather popular
UK Parliament rubber-stamps EMERGENCY data grab 'n' keep bill
Just 49 MPs oppose Drip's rushed timetable
MPs wave through Blighty's 'EMERGENCY' surveillance laws
Only 49 politcos voted against DRIP bill
EU's top data cops to meet Google, Microsoft et al over 'right to be forgotten'
Plan to hammer out 'coherent' guidelines. Good luck chaps!
US judge: YES, cops or feds so can slurp an ENTIRE Gmail account
Crooks don't have folders labelled 'drug records', opines NY beak
Delaware pair nabbed for getting saucy atop Mexican eatery
Burrito meets soft taco in alleged rooftop romp outrage
prev story

Whitepapers

Reducing security risks from open source software
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
Application security programs and practises
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Consolidation: the foundation for IT and business transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.