Sometimes trust is all we have. But whom (or what) should we believe in?
Bingo Fuel. It was a caution light none of us had seen previously, at least not while operating the CQ-24A Unmanned K-MAX aircraft. With the vehicle many miles from home base, the light was a real concern: it signified a minimum fuel state for the return flight, the words on the command tent’s big screen for all to see.
I was directing a team of contractors testing the K-MAX’s ability to deliver cargo while operating autonomously, part of our workup before we began flying actual missions. We were in southwestern Afghanistan, watching the operator maneuver the aircraft over Forward Operating Base Payne miles to the south of us. Because the K-MAX was over the horizon, the operator was using the Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS) datalink.
Maneuvering manually under BLOS was nonstandard, but I had directed it as a contingency in case the Payne equipment, operated by two Marines we had previously trained, became inoperative. We already knew that the K-MAX could autonomously complete a flight, but I thought it useful to know if we could reposition manually if asked to do so by the landing zone controllers. After all, this was a war zone—stuff happens.
We soon discovered that manual control of a hovering, over-the-horizon aircraft was difficult work. The CQ-24A BLOS installation had the same limitation as any other: system lag. Once a control input was made from our command tent, it could take up to six seconds for the signal to bounce off an orbiting satellite, travel down to the aircraft, influence its vector, send the resulting change in attitude, speed, and position back up to the satellite, and then back down to the operator’s graphic user interface (GUI) screen. (This provided team members with the rare opportunity to complain about the speed of light.)
With this lag, it was quite easy to “chase” the aircraft. Our eventual technique was to make a one-second input on the hand controller, release, then wait until we saw the K-MAX’s icon stop on the GUI screen. Repeated as necessary, the process was as tedious as it was inefficient.
Further, the BLOS installation was so basic that there was no guarantee a one-second displacement on the hand controller would produce the same amount of aircraft movement each time. And without external cameras, the operator had to surmise his entire closed-loop feedback from the GUI screen.
More Than a Fancy Science Project
The Unmanned K-MAX had begun as a mere science project years before. The brainchild of Greg Lynch, a Lockheed Martin program manager and former Air Force helicopter pilot, he first fought his own superiors and then Department of Defense officials over the feasibility of an unmanned helicopter delivering supplies to remote locations in a combat theater.
Lynch believed the K-MAX was the perfect platform for this, an aircraft already proven by hundreds of thousands of manned flight hours. The K-MAX design was simple for a helicopter, which meant it was reliable to the extreme. It was also quiet. Its dual intermesher configuration didn’t require a tail rotor, making its aural signature among the lowest in the world.
The Unmanned K-MAX prototype, using off-the-shelf components, began winning the hearts and minds of executives and officials alike through a series of successful demonstrations, culminating in a final test in 2011. By this time, the United States had absorbed significant ground convoy casualties in its two war zones. The military saw the ground convoy as the primary method of satisfying the logistical needs of the warfighter—and our adversaries saw them as targets with high rewards and low risks.
With the military eager to “get supplies off the roads,” nearly overnight the fancy science project gathered sufficient momentum for the Marines to send it to Afghanistan, as is, with civilians as its maintainers and half of its operators.