Rapid Prototyping Research Center Demonstrates Autonomous K-MAX Helicopter

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George Mason University’s College of Engineering and Computing Rapid Prototype Research Center (RPRC) successfully completed a demonstration of an advanced heavy-lift autonomous aircraft called UAS-(L) at Fort Pickett, Virginia.

The K-MAX® helicopter, made by Kaman Corporation of Bloomfield, Connecticut, was outfitted with an automation system and actuators to control the aircraft (the system is named TITAN UAV aerial system). The UAS-(L) autonomous vertical-lift helicopter system demonstration was sponsored and supported by the US Airforce Research Laboratory (AFRL) and by the US Navy’s NAVAIR division.

“The successful UAS-(L) demonstration has shown that autonomous heavy-lift helicopters can conduct logistics and reconnaissance missions in front line areas eliminating the risk to helicopter pilots, while maximizing mission flexibility. We are very excited about this new technology, and we look forward to working with the Navy and Marines to move it into a transition-able form,” says Eric Vollmecke, Maj. General USAF (ret), director of Mason’s RPRC. GMU RPRC is the Prime contractor for the program providing program management, systems engineering and integration expertise, and engineering-based modeling and simulation services for the program. “The KMAX program, yet again, demonstrates that the GMU RPRC can successfully deliver rapid prototyping of advanced systems and capabilities for DOD in the C4I and autonomy areas,” commented Art Pyster, Associate Dean, GMU College of Engineering and Computing.

The K-MAX® aircraft can carry up to 6,000 lbs. of payload as a sling load and the TITAN UAV aerial system variant can carry up to 4,500 lbs. of payload. An autonomy system, called Peregrine, made by Near Earth Autonomy, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was integrated with the TITAN UAV aerial system to control the aircraft at take-off and approach for delivery of a payload to a remote location and return to base, without operator or pilot input. The system uses a laser radar sensor (LIDAR) for ‘visualization’ of the surroundings. That sensor data, in conjunction with other aircraft sensors, allows the autonomy system to make decisions on obstacle avoidance, drop zone evaluation, drop zone sling-load placement, landing zone evaluation, and safe landing areas. In its final form, the UAS-(L) system can take off from a location and according to a mission plan, fly autonomously to a forward location, deliver supplies, and then return to base.

Also demonstrated, was a W-band collision avoidance radar system, produced by Pacific Antenna Systems, of Camarillo, California, and their subcontractor Maxentric of Fort Lee, New Jersey. During the demonstration, the radar discerned small targets such as a power line and an 18-inch tethered drone while the K-MAX® aircraft was airborne. The W-Band radar, due to its extremely high operating frequency of 94 GHz, can detect very small objects even in the presence of significant ground clutter, providing a capability to ‘see’ objects that could be hazards or threats to the aircraft even when visibility is poor.

Finally, a beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) Ka-Band satellite terminal was successfully demonstrated, carrying high-definition video, and supporting data rates up to four Mbps from the aircraft to a surrogate satellite to a local ground terminal. The compact antenna which measures about 30 inches in diameter has a gain of 40 dBi making it the smallest mobile Ka-Band high-gain satellite terminal in existence. The terminal was tested with its transmissions being interrupted by the K-MAX® dual intermeshing rotor system which was just feet away from the antenna aperture—without disruption of the signal. The antenna is designed to be compatible with military satellites such as the Wideband Gap Filler (WGS) system or with some small modifications to operate over commercial Ka-Band satellite systems. The advance airborne satellite system weighs 52 lbs., and it is made by Pacific Antenna Systems of Camarillo, California.

The demonstration was supported by UAV-Pro of Blackstone, VA, who provided independent, third-party safety and all of the on-site logistics support and coordination at the U.S. Army’s Fort Pickett Installation.

RPRC is an applied research center that focuses on systems engineering, systems integration, program management, and military transition of advanced technologies. Located in Springfield, Virginia, the RPRC is near many federal agencies and works primarily with the U.S. military including the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, and the U.S. Air Force.

Kaman Aerospace Corporation conducts business in the aerospace & defense, industrial and medical markets. Kaman produces and markets proprietary aircraft bearings and components; super precision, miniature ball bearings; proprietary spring energized seals, springs and contacts; complex metallic and composite aerostructures for commercial, military and general aviation fixed and rotary wing aircraft; safe and arming solutions for missile and bomb systems for the U.S. and allied militaries; subcontract helicopter work; restoration, modification and support of our SH-2G Super Seasprite maritime helicopters; manufacture and support of our K-MAX® manned and unmanned medium-to-heavy lift helicopters

Near Earth Autonomy, Inc. develops solutions for manufacturers and users of low-flying aircraft. The Company produces a suite of tools to enable partial automation of aircraft. Its application areas include industrial inspection and cargo delivery.

Pacific Antenna Systems designs antennas from 1 to 100GHz. PAS specializes in R&D and rapid prototyping.

MaXentric Technologies, LLC, is an advanced research, development, and consulting company with a portfolio of technologies that service both commercial and government markets working on several components of the next generation of mobile platforms.

UAV Pro is a small business located in Blackstone, VA specializing in unmanned systems safety, target development, and presentation, as well as logistics support at Military installations throughout the United States.

This research is based upon work supported by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory and U.S. Navy’s NAVAIR division under Contract No. FA8750-20-C-0555.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of GMU and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory or the U.S. Navy.