January 10th, 2012
06:02 PM ET

The "mule" drone

By CNN National Security Producer Jennifer Rizzo

"You call, we haul" could be the motto for a new unmanned helicopter drone being tested to deliver cargo and supplies to Marines in Afghanistan.

A first of its kind, the unmanned chopper can carry 6,000 pounds of supplies to troops in remote and dangerous regions without the risks of sending a piloted aircraft or truck convoy.

The military already has an arsenal of high-flying surveillance drones and unmanned armed aircraft that can hit targets with Hellfire missiles.

Adding a cargo drone to the mix could reduce the loss of troop lives, according to the Marine Corps, which is spearheading the testing. In addition, it could reduce loss of equipment and supplies on ground resupply missions and be another option for delivering supplies by air when the weather, terrain or threat from enemy fighters pose too great of a risk to pilot an aircraft.

About 6 percent of all Army convoy resupply missions in Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in casualties. While other branches of the military were unable to provide statistics, convoys are frequently a target for roadside IEDs and insurgent ambushes.

Two of the Lockheed Martin and Kaman brand K-MAX crafts have already been purchased by the Marines, costing $10 million each.

They are being tested for operational use over a six-month period at Camp Dwyer, a Marine base in Afghanistan's Helmand province, according to Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Brian Block. With a team made up of eight Marines and 16 company technicians, the drones have already made 20 cargo drops since testing began in the middle of December, delivering thousands of ready-to-eat meals and supplies needed at forward operating bases in Afghanistan.

"This is a demonstration phase to test the true capabilities of this aircraft and how well it can perform its job in a combat environment," said Maj. Kyle O'Connor, the officer-in-charge of the testing. "With every flight in theater, we are collecting data, and at the end of the day, we are going to look at all of that data and decide whether or not to make it a program of record."

The Marines will not comment on the performance of the unmanned choppers until the six-month testing period is over.

"It's part of the natural evolution of what is a revolutionary technology," said Brookings Institution drone expert Peter Singer, who compared the advancement of drones to the development of manned planes.

"Just like what happened with manned planes, they were first used for observation. Then someone said we can see the bad guys, let's arm them. And then by the end of World War I, we are using them for cargo, medical evacuations and postal delivery," he said.

The K-MAX helicopter was designed in the 1990s as a piloted civilian aircraft but has been modified by Lockheed Martin and Kaman to operate with or without a pilot onboard.

The manned version of the K-MAX is used for lift operations by commercial operators for the construction and logging industries, according to Lockheed.

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Filed under: Afghanistan • drones • Marines • Military • Technology
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  29. Obvious

    Every drone needs a remote-controlled detonator onboard so that if downed/captured, we can destroy it remotely and they don't get our technology. Obviously more for attack/surveillance UAVs than these rescue ones, but still. If nobody's on it yet and it's being shot down, can't take the risk.

    January 27, 2012 at 10:58 am | Reply
    • Obvious

      I guess it's not so obvious, as the Taliban and Iran have so far claimed to down a few of our drones and have them. The Pentagon has confirmed that too, I believe.

      January 27, 2012 at 10:59 am | Reply
  30. Jason

    This is the trend in aviation. Most airliners flown today are are done so by computers, GPS, most have the capability to take off and land themselves . Most have telemetry streams back to the home office for monitoring all aspects of all flights, especially international flights. It's a short step to add a command link from the home office for control of the aircraft via satellite link. Sure, there will still be a pilot up in the cockpit but, he won't actually be flying the craft, he'll be falling asleep over Minneapolis.....

    January 16, 2012 at 9:22 am | Reply
  31. ﺶCHEﺶ

    It's still a noisy turbo-prop aircraft for Christ sake. How can you deliver goods on battle field with all these noise hovering over the skies? Another war-monger's waste of tax payer’s money. These are the same folks who claims the Gov't doesn't create jobs? As stupid as they are in basic common sense and logic; they don't even realized that defense contracts are Gov't created jobs to that industry in $Trillions plus. These are the same people who don't want to pay their fair share in taxes.

    January 12, 2012 at 3:13 am | Reply
    • Kelly

      KMAX is a VERY quiet rotorcraft. The rotors turn much slower than larger, heavy rotorcraft such as a CH-53. All you hear is a gentle fluff-fluff as the rotors turn. At altitude, it would be almost imperceptible.

      The taxpayers financial burden of this program is peanuts compared to layering on tons of armor on land vehicles, whcih are restricted to travelling common, specific routes. That strategy has done nothing to mitigate the success of IEDs – the insurgents simply increase the explosive content.

      January 20, 2012 at 6:05 am | Reply
  32. mark norman

    if it saves one life it is very well worth it

    January 12, 2012 at 12:36 am | Reply
  33. Devan

    I love how our tech is going upwards everyday.....but it also makes me worry. Soon we will have minimum casualties by using automated and robotic equipment.... then all the countries or organizations with money would just buy em and buy em and try and take over areas. but destroyed most a country. We need to find a way to make the world united and press outwards not inwards.

    January 12, 2012 at 12:13 am | Reply
  34. kamanakapu

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    January 11, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Reply
  35. r.ortiz

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    January 11, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Reply
  36. r.ortiz

    nice looking chopper, better it be unmaned especially in dangerous places, where our service personnel will not be at risk.

    January 11, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Reply
  37. sielingfan

    wonder what the pilotage programs do - I mean if the weather is too nasty to send in a BlackHawk, I really don't put much faith in a Mule to do any better. Is it automated or do we have to put a chopper pilot in every Marine ground unit from now on, to land the thing and take off at the LZ?

    I mean I guess let's test it and see what we can learn, but..... I dunno. Not seeing a whole lot of practical applications just yet (compared to sending piloted (ARMED) choppers instead).

    January 11, 2012 at 11:56 am | Reply
    • Jim

      The K-MAX does not require a pilot at either end of the mission. It's programmed with the lat/long info for T/O and LZ and completely autonomous. It can hit at least 3 LZ's before returning to base if needed.

      January 11, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Reply
    • Bulfrog5

      Most ground combat units already have a pilot assigned to them. At least every Marine ground combat unit I served in from 1996-2009 did.

      January 12, 2012 at 12:57 am | Reply
  38. dreamer96

    Looks like a modified Cobra...Good going...should sell some to off shore oil well companies.. Now get the unmanned supply trucks working, I know thats a lot harder..but when that system is finally working we can put it in cars and semi trucks and run them 24/7 in the U.S....

    January 11, 2012 at 10:17 am | Reply
    • Alphamale13

      Yeha – and what happens to those jobs – people then will be out of work...

      January 11, 2012 at 11:11 am | Reply
      • kamanakapu

        Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Robotics is driving jobs into obsolescence yet people keep calling for more jobs. There may come a time when humans will not be needed because robots will be able to do what humans used to do. So what happens than?
        Abortions! Abortions! Abortions!

        January 11, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
    • dreamer96

      We are heading in the direction of passenger aircraft to be unmanned, or at least no copilot and crew...economics drive this...GE now makes more jet engines with robots and 1 tenth the workers in their plant...we need to regenerate our jobs system create new fields for the workers...better trained workers..

      January 11, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Reply
    • ChicagoRich

      There will be plenty of jobs managing and maintaining these things. We will be able to do more with less resources. Don't fear automation, just plan and train for jobs that will actually exist in the future. Look at things that have been heavily automated already. Farms used to require a multiple of the man hours per acre compared to now, but that did not ultimately result in long term unemployment, it freed up labor for other endeavors. The same will be true of other occupations which change due to automation.

      January 17, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Reply
  39. Ronnie Cruz

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    January 11, 2012 at 5:53 am | Reply
  40. David in Tampa

    I have a great idea....Don't send our troops to a country that does not belong to USA.

    January 11, 2012 at 3:50 am | Reply
    • C.Brown

      That comment was pointless as these could be used if the U.S. was one day attacked by a foreign force. FAIL!!!!!!!

      January 11, 2012 at 11:02 am | Reply
      • Devan

        If we dont stay occupied in the middle east what do you think the so called terrorists organizations will do. They will take over the smaller and or weaker countries/areas, regroup, resupply, retrain, and this will all happen again.

        January 12, 2012 at 12:15 am |
    • Steve

      sure lets wait to use our troops when the fight is on our streets you fucking idiot.

      January 12, 2012 at 5:42 am | Reply
      • Darin

        Your an idiot if the fight comes to our streets that is the end. It will never come to our own streets unless someone pulls off a preemptive strike that knocks out our ability to respond aka nuclear attack but if that happens the world is ending anyways so stfu!

        January 26, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  41. El Duderino (if you're not into the whole brevity thing)

    It's about time. I've always imagined soldiers in combat running low on supplies and having a UAV helicopter supply them a weapons cache. I think they should have some sort of parachute release contraption so the helicopter wouldn't have to completely touchdown.

    January 11, 2012 at 1:55 am | Reply
  42. Daniel

    Very cool! I want one!!

    January 11, 2012 at 1:37 am | Reply

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