Kaman Corp. says it will soon be rolling out uncrewed helicopters for civilian use.
The Bloomfield-based aeroparts manufacturer announced it has developed a new commercial uncrewed aircraft system kit that makes it possible to remotely pilot the recently relaunched K-1200 K-Max heavy-lift helicopter.
Kaman already produces uncrewed K-Max variants for the U.S. military, but up until now, that option was not available to civilian operators.
According to a statement from the company, the first commercial-use helicopter fitted with the remote control add-on will take flight some time in the third quarter of this year. Two firms, Helicopter Express Inc. of Chamblee, Georgia, and Swanson Group Aviation of Glendale, Oregon, have already placed orders and are expected to receive their kits in 2021, they said.
Financial details of those orders were not immediately disclosed.
Like other manufacturers of utility helicopters, Kaman has seen increased interest in civilian rotorcraft that can operate in hazardous situations without putting human pilots in danger. "Self-flying helicopters," as they are sometimes known, are becoming an increasingly attractive option for surveying and battling wildfires, especially on the West Coast, where the seasonal blazes have become more destructive in recent years.
Transportation companies have also expressed interest in mostly autonomous helicopters to deliver supplies to people in remote or hard-to-reach locations, such as northern Alaska.
Kaman's push to bring its remotely piloted helicopters to the commercial market parallels continued work on two existing uncrewed K-Max variants for the U.S. Marine Corps. Those choppers had been used by the military in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013 and then put in storage, but last year Kaman won a contract to reactive and upgrade them with new ground control stations and enhanced sensor-based autonomous piloting capabilities.
The helicopters won rave reviews from military officials during their initial deployment. At the time, a spokeswoman for the Naval Air Systems Command said the aircraft were saving lives by keeping supply trucks off of Afghanistan's perilous highways, where they are susceptible to improvised roadside bombs set by insurgents.
Kaman officially restarted production of the K-Max in 2015 after ceasing deliveries in 2003. Development of an uncrewed helicopter for the Marines, however, had continued uninterrupted during that 12-year hiatus as military officials sought out new and safer ways to ferry ammunition, food, fuel, water, and blood transfusions to combat zones in the Middle East.