By B.C. Kessner

Both a Lockheed Martin [LMT]-Kaman [KAMN] team and Boeing [BA] are excited and comfortable with their respective proposals submitted recently for the Marine Corps’ Cargo unmanned aircraft system (UAS) services request, however their entries and approaches could not be much more different.

“I don’t doubt that either competitor can do the job, the thing about it is that we came at it from opposite directions,” Michelle Evans, vice president, business development for Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Sensors, told Defense Daily recently.

Lockheed Martin and Kaman formally offered on 21 Oct. the K-MAX unmanned helicopter in response to the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) request for a cargo UAS. Boeing submitted its A160T Hummingbird bid a day earlier for the contract aimed at providing a rotary wing cargo drone for Marine Corps urgent resupply needs in Afghanistan and Iraq (Defense Daily, 21 Oct.).

A NAVAIR spokesperson yesterday was unable to confirm that K-MAX and A160T were the only offerings received by the 21 Oct. deadline.

At Dugway Proving Ground in Utah last January, K-MAX and Hummingbird both demonstrated resupply capabilities and key performance requirements that included cruise flight at 15,000 feet, hover out of ground effect at 12,000 feet, the ability to deliver 2,500 pounds in six hours, as well as single and multiple cargo drop capability (Defense Daily, Sept. 30).

NAVAIR is seeking technically acceptable solutions to meet the immediate rapid action deployment of cargo UAS into theater and help get convoys off the road in Afghanistan. It has the option to award zero, one, or two contracts for a Marine Corps quick reaction assessment (QRA) based on the responses collected last month, the NAVAIR spokesperson said.

After the current source selection activity, NAVAIR expects to award any QRA contracts in about the January 2011 timeframe, the spokesperson said. Following that, pre- deployment activity will lead up to the QRA in the summer of 2011. The QRA will be conducted by Commander Operational Test and Evaluation Force (COMOPTEVFOR).

After the QRA is complete, NAVAIR will select one company to deploy its unmanned rotorcraft to Afghanistan for six months, the spokesperson said. Extension of cargo UAS award will be dependent on the fiscal year budget re-assessed each year as part of the Marine Corps’ overseas contingency operations.

Boeing points to the fact that its A160T was built from the ground up as an unmanned aircraft. The A160T has a 2,500-pound payload capacity and features a unique optimum-speed- rotor technology that improves overall performance efficiency by adjusting the rotor’s speed at different altitudes, gross weights and cruise speeds.

A160T is about 35 feet long with a 36-foot rotor diameter. It can hover at 20,000 feet and cruise at more than 140 knots, Boeing said. The turbine-powered A160T established a world endurance record in its class in 2008 with an 18.7-hour unrefueled flight.

While unmanned since its inception, the A160T and its gasoline engine powered predecessor, the A160, were never designed specifically with the cargo mission in mind. It first flew in 2002 and became part of Boeing’s UAS fleet in 2004 with the acquisition of Frontier Systems Inc. Boeing developed the A160 under a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency contract as a vertical take-off UAS with long-endurance, long-range and large-payload capability (Defense Daily, July 31, 2008). While Boeing has always contemplated a wide mission range for A160T internal and external payloads, much of the effort over the years was around C4ISR and attack payload capabilities.

As the Marine Cargo UAS competition and possibly other precision resupply opportunities are emerging, Boeing is still running through the production line aircraft that will vie for the awards. Last month, the company said it recently returned the first production A160T Hummingbird unmanned rotorcraft, A020, to the assembly line after applying the aircraft’s final, light-gray coat of paint. Boeing is building the Hummingbird at its facility in Mesa, Ariz., and said it expects to complete A020 by the end of this year.

Lockheed Martin and Kaman already own operational K-MAX unmanned rotorcraft based on a manned version that has accumulated more than 255,000 flight hours doing the cargo mission in the commercial logging and firefighting industries. Recently, the aircraft moved 2.5 million pounds of boulders in just over 40 hours at 10,000 feet altitude, Lockheed Martin said.

Kaman designed the K-MAX helicopter to deliver sling loads up to 6,000 pounds at sea level, and 4,300 pounds at 15,000 feet, and Lockheed Martin said its mission management and control systems give the K-MAX helicopter unparalleled flight autonomy in remote environments and over large distances.

The team has flown the K-MAX nearly 400 hours in unmanned mode since joining forces in 2007, and it is pitching another aspect of its solution to NAVAIR–optional human piloting of the aircraft.

“Flexibility of deployment is the big thing for us with the cargo UAS mission,” Evans said. “You can go unmanned in your dangerous missions, and if you need to move it from FOB [forward operating base] to FOB, you can put a pilot in there and go ahead.” Relocation of strictly unmanned aircraft presents another challenge to solve, she added.

“The big thing, as industry and customers are getting more comfortable with unmanned systems, is realizing the base of K-MAX was built specifically for this mission,” Evans said. “It’s the right aircraft for the mission, and we can unman it, so we look at that as the longer term best solution.”

Long-term operational and maintenance costs could be the key, as both aircraft appear to have the performance characteristics to meet the QRA’s concept of operations and cargo mission scenarios.

First, last, and always, A160T is a sleek high-performance unmanned helicopter. K-MAX is a simple, mosquito-looking, cargo-slinging machine that can be optionally piloted. It will be up to COMOPTEVOFR and the Marine Corps to decide which of these UAS offers the best long term business case for replacing some of the ground vehicles in theater, and getting convoys of Marines off the roads and away from IEDs.