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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