Rugged doesn't even begin to describe Afghanistan's terrain. Delivering supplies to distant outposts over land through hostile territory is a difficult and deadly proposition -- and even helicopter transports are not immune from RPG fire. So to make essential cargo drops without risking the lives of servicemen, Lockheed Martin simply removed the pilot.
The Kaman K-Max K-1200 "aerial truck" helicopter has been specifically designed and built as an external-lift aircraft. The vehicle features an unconventional rotor design whereby the dual props intermesh with one another as they rotate -- known as a synchropter -- eliminating the need for a tail rotor. An 1800hp Honeywell T53-17 turboshaft engine produces enough power that the K-Max can actually lift more than its own weight -- 2334kg -- hoisting 2700kg of cargo at sea level. Its narrow profile is idea for loads slung beneath the vehicle with a myriad of slings, hooks and attachments. Two K-Max helicopters have been deployed to Afghanistan to help maintain vital supply lines for the Marines. And given its strength, versatility and manoeuvrability, the K-1200 has been a workhorse for the firefighters, as well as construction and logging industries, for more than two decades.
But for work in hostile territory, Lockheed modified the K-1200 to operate via remote control -- because, with a couple of tons worth of cargo swaying beneath it, the K-1200 isn't particularly quick or nimble. By removing the pilot, and necessary interfaces and life support systems, the autonomous K-1200 can fly higher and with more and heavier loads than any other helicopter in service.
Since beginning its tour in November last year, the pair of K-MAX Unmanned Multi-Mission Helicopters reliably delivered more than 450,000kg of cargo. "K-MAX has proven its value to us in-theater, enabling us to safely deliver cargo to forward areas," Marine Corps Maj Kyle O'Connor, who is overseeing the deployment, said in a press statement. "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."
The copters have proven so valuable, the Marines have extended their deployment twice already. The K-Max will continue to make deliveries until this September. [Wikipedia - Lockheed Martin 1, 2 - Defense Industry Daily]