Feeds

US robochopper cargo skyhook gets another $47m

Crewless mesh-copter creeps closer to the front line

Intelligent flash storage arrays

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. ®

Choosing a cloud hosting partner with confidence

More from The Register

next story
Musicians sue UK.gov over 'zero pay' copyright fix
Everyone else in Europe compensates us - why can't you?
Bladerunner sequel might actually be good. Harrison Ford is in it
Go ahead, you're all clear, kid... Sorry, wrong film
I'll be back (and forward): Hollywood's time travel tribulations
Quick, call the Time Cops to sort out this paradox!
Megaupload overlord Kim Dotcom: The US HAS RADICALISED ME!
Now my lawyers have bailed 'cos I'm 'OFFICIALLY' BROKE
Forget Hillary, HP's ex CARLY FIORINA 'wants to be next US Prez'
Former CEO has political ambitions again, according to Washington DC sources
Euro Parliament VOTES to BREAK UP GOOGLE. Er, OK then
It CANNA do it, captain.They DON'T have the POWER!
prev story

Whitepapers

10 ways wire data helps conquer IT complexity
IT teams can automatically detect problems across the IT environment, spot data theft, select unique pieces of transaction payloads to send to a data source, and more.
A strategic approach to identity relationship management
ForgeRock commissioned Forrester to evaluate companies’ IAM practices and requirements when it comes to customer-facing scenarios versus employee-facing ones.
10 threats to successful enterprise endpoint backup
10 threats to a successful backup including issues with BYOD, slow backups and ineffective security.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Website security in corporate America
Find out how you rank among other IT managers testing your website's vulnerabilities.