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After Battlefield Wins, Helo Drone Hovers to Commercial Market

The U.S. Marine Corps' helicopter drone program was so successful, the mission was extended from six months to 33 months.

The service's pair of K-MAX unmanned helicopters made by Kaman spent almost three years in Afghanistan, where the choppers pulled more than 900 damaged trucks from the road, hauled over 4.5 million pounds of gear, and significantly reduced the amount of time troops were in contact with the enemy.

With the rotorcraft now sitting in storage -- the Corps ended its mission in Afghanistan in 2014 and brought them home -- the company has begun inking deals for commercial versions. Kaman recently announced agreements with a European firm, Rotex Helicopter AG based in Liechtenstein, and an American firm, Helicopter Express, based in Georgia. And company officials say there will be more to come.

"We had been actively trying to reopen the production line for probably the last year and a half," Terry Fogarty, general manager of K-MAX Programs for Kaman Aerosystems, said last week at the Paris Air Show, held outside the city at the historic Le Bourget airfield.

"What it started from is people would call me and say, 'How can I get a K-MAX?'" he said. "We received a significant number of those and we said, 'Hey, we better start thinking about doing this.' So we came up with a program where we started accepting deposits late last year. And when enough deposits came in, we made a decision to reopen the production line. And that's truly how it came about -- there's a demand in the marketplace for commercial K-MAX."

Commercial and civilian customers are interested in using the unmanned helicopter for firefighting, forestry work, construction and disaster relief, among other applications, Fogarty said.

"There are many uses -- it's basically, 'What do you need to lift that's 6,000 pounds or less in an austere environment?'" he said. "You can have an unmanned aircraft carrying medical supplies, carrying reconstruction supplies or food to places where the roads are still impassable and where power isn't working ... in maybe weather environments where you don't want to put a manned aircraft in."

As part of a demonstration for the Interior Department last year in upstate New York, Fogarty said the company flew an unmanned K-MAX to put out a fire using a Bambi Bucket, which hangs beneath a helicopter and carries water or foam. The firm plans on doing a similar test this fall in Boise, Idaho, he said.

"We firmly believe it will be a successful demonstration," he said. "The Department of the Interior has stated pretty bluntly that they want this capability as soon as possible. One of their concerns is being able to fight a fire 24 hours a day. They can only fight a fire right now approximately eight hours a day. So their limited by nighttime and degraded visual environments such as smoke or inversion layers in the morning. They would like to be able to fight a fire 24 hours a day, no matter when it starts. So they're looking forward to this unmanned capability."

The Marine Corps and the Army appreciate what the unmanned K-MAX can do, but they're challenged from investing in the technology at the moment largely because of federal spending caps known as sequestration, Fogarty said. Still, the company hopes both U.S. and NATO military customers will eventually field the technology, which can be installed as a kit onto an existing helicopter, he said.

"You'll use the unmanned aircraft no matter what flavor for the three Ds -- the dull, the dirty, the dangerous," he said. "Places where you really don't want a man in the loop."

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