The K-MAX unmanned drone helicopter is proving invaluable to U.S. Marines in Afghanistan, according to a report from McClatchy News on Tuesday.
During the past 16 months, two K-MAX helicopters that were sent to Afghanistan as an experiment have delivered 3.2 millions of pounds of cargo and flown more than 1,000 missions, the agency reported from the volatile Afghan province of Helmand.
That capability has enabled Marine Corps commanders to reduce the number of supply convoys on the province's bomb-infested roads; cut the workload, and the risk, for helicopter and Osprey crews; saved money; and provided real-world proof that remotely piloted drone aircraft are useful for much more than just surveillance and missile strikes.
Peter Singer, the director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, told McClatchy that the K-MAX is the face of the future for unmanned flight.
"Everyone has framed discussion of drones as being about surveillance, and that's one of the models, but they won't be only that," said Mr. Singer, author of "Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century."
The aircraft is "incredibly reliable and cost-effective," said Marine Maj. Daniel Lindblom, who oversees the various unmanned-aircraft programs the Corps runs in Afghanistan. They require only about 1.3 man-hours of maintenance for every hour of flight, and they cost just more than $1,300 an hour to operate, he said.
That compares with more than $11,000 and nearly 23 man-hours of maintenance for each hour of flight for the Marines' manned workhorse heavy-lift helicopter, the Chinook CH-53E, according to statistics supplied by the Marine Corps.
The combat-zone test of the K-MAX was supposed to last just six months, but in March the Marine Corps extended it indefinitely, citing success in delivering cargo and keeping Marines in trucks off dangerous roads.
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