Look at the two pictures below. One is a controller for your average Playstation 2 machine. One flies the $14 million K-Max drone, which the Marine Corps uses to transport up to 6,000 pounds of gear and equipment at a time. Can you tell which is which?
Give up? The top one flies the K-Max. The bottom one is just a Logitech controller from Walmart.
Here’s the drone itself, a rugged 6,000-pound machine based at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan that is one of only two like it in the world. While here on an embed, I paid the program a visit.
The K-MAX is the key component of the Marine Corps Cargo Resupply Unmanned Aircraft System (CRUAS) which lets Marines fly gear and supplies in and out of remote or dangerous areas without endangering a helicopter pilot or a truck convoy. With wooden rotors made out of Sitka spruce, the K-MAX is light. And it’s reliable, requiring only 1.5 maintenance hours per hour of flight time, which CRUAS staff tell me is way lower than any Marine aircraft of record.
There are only two guys in the Marine Corps currently tasked with flying this nifty drone, and they’re corporals in their 20s, presumably with a couple of hours of video game-playing experience under their belt.
Here’s one of them, Cpl. Matthew Perry, demonstrating what it looks like when he’s hard at work.
But if you think you’re qualified to pilot a drone just because you’re a pro on the PS4, think again. The officer in charge of the program, Capt. Frederick Riess, said flying the K-Max has a lot more to do with the mechanics of manned aviation than it does with leveling up on your favorite game or piloting a remote-controlled helicopter.
It’s hard work, too: Cpl. Perry and his fellow FOB air vehicle operator, Cpl. Salvatore Castaldi, have to fly out to remote forward operating bases and set up antennas and a generator before the K-Max begins its retrograde or resupply mission. During an operation in January, they slept in an ISO shipping container, they said, and it got so cold that sleeping bags froze to the wall.
While the program that creates missions for the K-MAX will keep it from crashing into mountains or other geographic obstacles, it’s still possible to do some damage by crashing it into the ground. That’s what may have happened with an earlier team last June when what used to be the second K-MAX in the program crashed while on a mission. That incident remains under investigation.
“This is the most responsibility we’ve put on a corporal,” Riess said.
Before the K-Max flies unmanned, somebody has to get in the cockpit and manually flip a switch to put the helicopter in drone mode.
Yes, I got a chance to sit in the cockpit.
The CRUAS team, mostly composed of contractors from Lockheed Martin, has high hopes for the K-MAX. It’s still not a program of record for the Marine Corps, though that may change soon. Officials at Marine Corps Installations and Logistics have expressed interest for using the system in the future Marine Corps Pacific mission, where it might come in handy for resupply missions.
It’s simple, really.