Robot Helicopter's 1st 'Hot Hookup' Makes Military History

Marines Hot Hook-Ups
Marines rush toward a hovering K-MAX unmanned helicopter in Helmand province, Afghanistan, May 22. (Image credit: Regional Command Southwest | US Marine Corps)

A robot helicopter has hauled more than 1 million pounds of cargo for the U.S. Marine Corps in less than half a year of testing, but nobody had ever tried hooking cargo to the unmanned helicopter as it hovered in midair. Marines finally made aviation history by completing what's known as a "hot hookup" in Afghanistan last week.

That hot hookup success means the Kaman K1200 "K-MAX" helicopter can swoop in to grab military gear without bothering to land. A Marine unmanned squadron moved almost 6,000 pounds of gear with the drone helicopter to Marines in hard-to-reach locations on the first night of such testing (May 22), according to Lisa Tourtelot, a U.S. Marine corporal with the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.

"It takes time and requires more personnel to operate," said John Norton, a U.S. Marine major in charge of cargo resupply with Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 2 (called the "Night Owls"). "With a hot hookup from the hover, we're able to come into the zone more expeditiously, which gives us more time to go forward with the fuel supply on the aircraft."

Marines return from familiarizing themselves with the downdraft of a hovering robot helicopter in Afghanistan. (Image credit: Regional Command Southwest US Marine Corps)

The K-MAX helicopter previously worked in the Pacific Northwest's logging industry before undergoing battlefield testing. Its recent hot hookup test included Marines with Combat Logistics Battalion 5 (CLB-5) — no strangers to external cargo hookups.

"Usually when we're working with a manned aircraft we have pilots…and crew chiefs to look up to when we're underneath the helicopter," said Brianna Conte, a U.S. Marine sergeant and landing support team leader with CLB-5. "With unmanned, it's not like that. We have the [air vehicle operator] and a spotter who are our eyes when we're getting it all hooked up."

Such operations could eventually eliminate with the need to have a human operator controlling the unmanned helicopter. The U.S. Office of Naval Research has worked on turning the K-MAX into a fully autonomous robotic helicopter that can deliver cargo to Marines anywhere, in any weather — Marines would just need to order supplies using a device similar to an iPad or Android tablet.

This story was provided by InnovationNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience. Follow InnovationNewsDaily on Twitter @News_Innovation, or on Facebook.

Live Science Staff
For the science geek in everyone, Live Science offers a fascinating window into the natural and technological world, delivering comprehensive and compelling news and analysis on everything from dinosaur discoveries, archaeological finds and amazing animals to health, innovation and wearable technology. We aim to empower and inspire our readers with the tools needed to understand the world and appreciate its everyday awe.