Air Transportation: UAVs Hauling Cargo Into The Future

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October 27, 2012: Israel, noting the successful use of helicopter UAVs for supplying troops in Afghanistan, has revealed a similar, but more advanced, cargo UAV. Called Flying Elephant, the helicopter-type vehicle is to carry a ton of cargo. It’s actually a novel design and the manufacturer admits that it will be another five years before the prototype is turned into a combat-ready vehicle. Announcing Flying Elephant now let’s potential export customers know there is competition for U.S. cargo UAVs on the way. If there isn’t enough interest then Flying Elephant will be quietly put to sleep.

It was Israel that invented the modern military UAV. The U.S. began buying these Israeli UAVs in the 1990s, and American firms began utilizing the design concepts created in Israel. This gave rise to the Predator UAV and many other battlefield UAVs, including the K-Max cargo UAV.

For a year now the U.S. Marine Corps has been using two K-Max UAV helicopters in Afghanistan. These two UAVs will stay until March, 2013, and may stay until the end of 2013. This is all because the two unmanned transport helicopters have proven very useful. The marines have been testing the K-Max in Afghanistan since late 2011. Last December the K-Max made its first cargo flight, taking 90 minutes to deliver 1.5 tons of supplies to a distant outpost. Since then the K-Max has flown over 500 sorties, each over an hour in duration and while carrying over a ton of cargo to remote marine bases in Afghanistan.

The marines began looking for a cargo carrying helicopter UAV in 2009, and quickly determined that K-Max was the best candidate for further development and testing. The two K-Max UAVs in Afghanistan are there as a final test of how useful the vehicle could be in a combat zone. An unmanned cargo helicopter risks fewer lives and is cheaper to operate. It can also be used in extremely hazardous missions.

The K-Max UAV was originally designed as a single seat helicopter that could carry sling loads of 2.8 tons (6,000 pounds) at sea level, or two tons (4,300 pounds) at 4,800 meters (15,000 feet). The 5.5 ton K-Max has a cruise speed of 185 kilometers an hour and can stay in the air for up to 2.6 hours per sortie. One of the most attractive features of the K-Max is the amount of automation in the aircraft. The flight control software can be programmed with where to take and drop a cargo, then return and land automatically. The operator can intervene at any time but most of the time the operator just monitors vidcams attached to the K-Max to ensure nothing goes wrong.

In 2010, the U.S. Army conducted tests using a K-Max to deliver supplies via parachute. This involved using the army low altitude parachute, which can drop loads of 36 kg (80 pounds) to 273 kg (600 pounds). The K-Max had a special rig that could carry and release four different payloads and demonstrated its ability to drop each one at a different location. The low altitude drops are more accurate than higher altitude ones and useful where the troops getting the stuff are on hilly ground that has few good helicopter landing zones. The army is also testing K-Max dropping loads from higher altitudes, using GPS guided parachutes. The army and marines are planning to have their helicopter UAVs drop supplies via parachute to troops in isolated areas. This sort of technology could be used by the Israeli Flying Elephant, if there proves to be a large enough market for another transport UAV.

 


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