A robot helicopter that can carry three tons of cargo, the Marine Corps K-MAX certainly has the cool factor. But does it have a future?
After a six-month pilot project in Afghanistan got extended into a 33-month deployment that made 2,250 tons of deliveries, the two experimental aircraft have come home. Prime contractor Lockheed Martin is looking to the energy industry and — if export authorities approve — foreign military sales. Members of Congress have campaigned for K-MAX to become an official program of record for the US military, and Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) is now working with the Marine Corps on formal requirements and new concepts of operations, with demonstration flights likely next year. Lockheed is even planning a demonstration later this year in which the unmanned helicopter will work with unmanned trucks. For now, though, the two robocopters will sit in storage while humans study the deployment.
The crucial question for K-MAX is the same one as for so many other innovative items of equipment rushed into service in the last 13 grueling years: Is it just a useful niche capability for a war that’s almost over or something relevant to a range of future missions?