Charles Kaman invented the K-Max in the 1940’s. It was a new type of helicopter called a synchropter that had two main rotors that spun in opposite directions in order to provide more lift and get rid of the need for a tail rotor. It was mainly used in the logging industry.
Today, missions to get food and supplies to our soldiers in Afghanistan have become increasingly more dangerous due to roadside bombs which have been the cause of over half of our soldier’s deaths since 2008. The Navy and Marine Corps looked into this and ultimately decided to have a competition where they allowed certain companies to design an unmanned aerial cargo transport vehicle for military purposes. Naturally with today’s technology the Navy wanted an unmanned aerial system, not only for safety reasons, but also to allow it to carry more cargo because of the absence of onboard human weight. Lockheed Martin took the K-Max synchropter and redesigned it to fit the Navy’s needs. Over the past year and a half or so it has successfully flown over 1000 missions and delivered over 3 million pounds of cargo to our troops.
The technology in this helicopter is so advanced that it does not even need a person to fly it through remote controls, although that is an option. In fact, the K-Max can be programmed to fly to specific destinations and it carries out its route using GPS along with onboard altitude and orientation sensors. It can fly at 115 mph for up to 250 miles, and it can carry up to 6,000 pounds of cargo which is a much heavier load than previous cargo helicopters. It also is very good at hovering in place which is an ideal skill when lowering cargo to the ground. This technology here is clearly the future of cargo transport in warzones and also in unmanned aerial vehicle systems in general.
What impresses me the most about this innovative helicopter is that it does not need a pilot at all. Most unmanned aerial systems have a pilot that controls the aircraft by remote control from a base somewhere while looking at the live video feeds from the aircraft. GPS and other orientation technologies have become so advanced that we can now program large aircraft to fly wherever we want them to at the touch of a button, eliminating the need for a pilot altogether. This makes me think about how long it will be before an airline develops a passenger plane that’s flight is entirely determined by complex computer programming as opposed to a human pilot. I realize that this idea will scare many people because of the natural tendency to trust fellow humans over machines, but I do not it will be too long before we see the first passenger plane that has implemented technology similar to the unmanned K-Max.