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Cargo UAV hopes brighten as Marines extend K-MAX

The Marines are going to keep flying Lockheed Martin's K-MAX unmanned cargo helicopter in Afghanistan for two more months than they'd originally planned, the company said Wednesday, in what could be a positive sign for the future of pilotless battlefield hauling.

Commanders' original plan was to fly the K-MAX until the end of June, but now they're going to keep it in Afghanistan until the end of September, pushing it to the close of the fiscal year. The helicopters are setting records for the still-new unmanned cargo delivery game -- the two that have been flying since last December have delivered a total of more than one million pounds of stuff, Lockheed said.

Company officials have been eager to play up the potential for more, ever more K-MAXes in service with more customers. Even Lockheed's statement Wednesday quoted K-MAX's Marine boss in theater as hinting that he could use more than two:

“K-MAX has proven its value to us in-theater, enabling us to safely deliver cargo to forward areas,” said Marine Corps Maj. Kyle O’Connor, who is overseeing the deployment. “We are moving cargo without putting any Marines, soldiers or airmen at risk. If we had a fleet of these things flying 24-7, we could move cargo around and not put people in jeopardy.”

Odds are good that Lockheed could be persuaded to make a deal along those lines. Still, the company has its eye on bigger game -- the Army. The problem is, the Army still seems mostly lukewarm about K-MAX.

You've read here where Lockheed officials say they're in informal talks with the Army about potential modifications for a theoretical green K-MAX, and how the Army brass says it's watching the Marines' experiments closely, but so far, that hasn't translated into a deal for Lockheed.

It's difficult to tell whether the expiration date on a potential Army resupply deal may have already passed: American combat troops are supposed to remain in Afghanistan until 2014, and some forces -- maybe as many as 20,000 -- could stay there for a decade after. They'll be moving around the country just as troops do today, and a K-MAX-style resupply system might make sense. Then again, if American troops dismantle their spider's web of distant outposts and bases as the withdrawal continues, there may not be any need for a small helicopter to avoid roadside bombs and bad roads.

Either way, Lockheed will probably keep up its sales pitch for as long as it can.

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