The K-MAX optionally-manned helicopter is a powerful battlefield work horse. Over the past 16 months, two (yes, just two) K-MAX drones delivered 3.2 million pounds of cargo to Marines in Afghanistan. This is simultaneously more like the future and less revolutionary than headlines about pizza-delivery drones would suggest. By 2020, the Federal Aviation Administration predicts there will be 15,000 civil and commercial drones flying over the U.S., doing jobs like transporting cargo and inspecting pipelines.
In Afghanistan, the K-MAX's ability to fly at night, sans pilot, made it incredibly useful for getting military supplies from point A to point B without risking human life. At home in the U.S., the unmanned helicopter could find a new job transporting bulk cargo. Because the K-MAX can fly continuously (there's no on-board operator who'll need to stop from fatigue) and mostly autonomously, it has major economic potential.
The K-MAX can carry 6,855 pounds at speeds of about 92mph, and it isn't constrained by road conditions or traffic. Here's the limitation: Commercial cargo movement means competing on the market, and a semi-truck can carry up to 60,000 pounds of cargo. The 18-wheeler still has to deal with roads and observe speed limits, but most of that disadvantage is off-set by the fact that it can transport more than eight times as much cargo.
So long as cheaper options remain viable, the K-MAX may be best suited for more dangerous jobs like rescue missions and construction, though there are likely to be times when unmanned helicopters are the right call for a cargo supply need. I wouldn't count on it delivering pizza just yet.
Helicopters are comparatively expensive vehicles. That's why they are mostly used where any other vehicle is impossible or impractical.
Autonomous winged aircraft would make a hell of a lot more sense for cargo.
The Google car has it's driver's license. The military is using autonomous trucks for deliveries in the field. Autonomous 18-wheelers are not that far off.
Even though the K-max can deliver cargo without the risks posed by IED's to trucks, there is still a significant cost increase to be considered with the K-max. Moving cargo by K-max is probably several times more expensive than using trucks.
Follow me with the math. A full load is about 3 tons. One load each day for a month is 90 tons. 16 months yields 1440 tons, or 2.88 millions pounds. If that's correct, that means they averages about one flight per night. Yes, they can fly 250+ miles in 3 hours with precision - hover nicely, deliver cargo, and return home. But $23 million each initial cost plus maintenance and upkeep is a lot of money, and I can see why they only ordered two. They are useful, but might it be done more frugally?
Nice how this is being compared to trucks, which are already a wasteful and foolish way to deliver long distance cargo. It makes sense to fly the stuff in a war zone, where we usually go with no expense spared.
Within the U.S. the only reason we consider trucks a valid idea is because our train network has been so badly neglected. Revive some old track and add a national carrier for a while to spur the industry, or something. Add high speed rail all the way across the US.
Then you can deliver practically any amount of cargo for VERY little cost. adding another flight adds significantly to your costs with this vehicle. Adding another train car adds very little to the trip cost. Trucks are incredibly inefficient for continental travel.
Its about time we quit accepting the least worst solution for everything like this.