Evening was falling at the desert landing zone near the U.S. Marine Corps’ Camp Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan when the dragonfly-like shape of a robotic helicopter appeared on the horizon. It was June 5 and the buzzing K-MAX unmanned cargo copter was angling in with a full load of supplies for the troops.

The twin-rotor, GPS-guided K-MAX didn’t quite make it. It tumbled to the ground in a cataclysm of dust and noise, reason unknown. “No one was injured as a result of the incident,” Capt. Matthew Beers, a Marine spokesman, tells Medium.

Which is the entire point. For more than 50 years the military has been working on robotic helicopters. A shocking number of them — probably around half — have crashed. But no one has died because no one was ever on board.

By contrast, America and its allies have lost more than 400 helicopters crashed or shot down in Iraq and Afghanistan, resulting in the deaths of some 500 people. Despite the devastating death toll, the coalition still needs whirlybirds to move people and supplies around rugged battlefields.

The $5-million-a-copy K-MAX, built by Lockheed Martin and Kaman, “allows us to quickly and efficiently resupply ground forces in austere locations while at the same time reducing the risk,” Beers says. (Emphasis mine.) If a few robot helicopters crash — Hell, if all of them crash — it’s an acceptable price for saving potentially hundreds of lives. Every robo-copter that falls to earth represents a manned copter that doesn’t have it.

But not all of the military branches share that sentiment.

A DASH at sea. Navy photo

Gravity

In the 1950s Soviet submarines could hit American ships with torpedoes farther than American ships could hit back with weapons of their own. The Navy commissioned The Gyrodyne Company, a small helicopter-maker in New York, to develop a one-ton, radio-controlled copter that could fly off ships’ decks and drop a submarine-killing torpedo as far as 70 miles away.

The first Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter, or DASH, flew in 1962. The Navy ordered 746 copies at a cost of $275 million — and quickly regretted it. The drone copter itself was a simple and sturdy design. But ships’ own electronic equipment tended to interfere with the robots’ control signals. 411 of the DASHs crashed. Frustrated, the Navy decommissioned the survivors in 1970.

More than two decades later the military tried again to acquire a vertical-takeoff drone, this time in the form of a robotic tiltrotor, with rotating engine nacelles allowing it to launch and land like a helicopter but cruise like an airplane.

The Bell-Boeing Eagle Eye, measuring 18 feet from nose to tail, flew for the first time in 1998. But the high crash rate of Bell-Boeing’s manned tiltrotor, the Osprey, dulled customer interest. The new drone’s only taker was the U.S. Coast Guard, which wanted the Eagle Eye to extend the surveillance range of its patrol ships.

But in 2006 an Eagle Eye was lost in a crash that aviation journalist Stephen Trimble described as “mysterious and never-resolved.” The Coast Guard cut off payments to Bell-Boeing and the Eagle Eye slowly faded away.

Meanwhile U.S. Special Operations Command, the Army, the Navy and the Marines were busily acquiring new robo-copters of their own, albeit at a low production rate totaling just a few per year.

SOCOM and the Army opted for Boeing’s three-ton Hummingbird. But a chain of crashes attributed to mechanical and control failures — one in 2005, another in 2007, two in 2010 and a final one in 2012 — doomed the $4-million ‘bot to the same fate as the DASH and Eagle Eye.

Crashes in September 2010 and April 2012 were the most devastating. The 2010 crash in Cayo, Belize, involved a SOCOM Hummingbird carrying a $2.5-million radar able to see through forest canopy. The drone in the 2012 crash in California was hauling a $19-million gigapixel spy camera. Losing such pricey sensors effectively ruined the Hummingbird’s reputation. The Army cancelled its contract. Presumably SOCOM did, too.

The Navy’s Fire Scout copter drone, used for reconnaissance and missile strikes, fared a little better. Copies of the one-ton, Northrop Grumman-made robot crashed in Libya in June 2011, off the West African coast in March 2012 and in Afghanistan a month later. The military blamed the incidents on a combination of mechanical and electronic failures.

And in August 2012 a Fire Scout went haywire on a test flight over Maryland and flew for 30 minutes towards Washington, D.C. Operators regained control minutes before capitol defenders might have been forced to shoot it down. The Navy rallied, ordering up a new and improved version of the temperamental ‘bot.

A K-MAX and its operators in Afghanistan. Via Kyle O’Connor

Cost of doing business

The Marines’ K-MAX, used strictly for cargo resupply, continues drone helicopters’ crashy tradition. But that’s not necessarily bad news. All military aircraft types crash. Even the Air Force’s $2-billion B-2 stealth bomber, easily the Pentagon’s most prized airplane, has had its share of accidents. So crashing without getting anybody killed represents real progress.

Plus, robot copters appear to be crashier than they actually are. DASH aside, unmanned helicopters are still a fairly new technology. “And new technology in general is more gremlin prone, especially as it goes through its teething period,” P.W. Singer, a Brookings Institution robotics expert, tells Medium. In other words, these ‘bots will probably get more reliable over time, as all techs do.

But many crashes can’t really be blamed on the robot. Because the don’t have pilots or passengers on board, drones can be pushed harder on riskier missions in more difficult conditions. “That in turn raises the likelihood of a crash,” Singer says.

Lockheed says the handful of K-MAXs in Afghanistan have hauled a combined 50 tons of supplies per week since December 2011, doing the work of 300 cargo trucks and thousands of personnel, even in darkness and bad weather and when the threat of Taliban attack is highest.

Sure, robot accidents are costly, but the alternative in many cases is to not operate any aircraft at all. The Pentagon’s burgeoning fleet of robo-copters lets the military do things it could never do before. If frequent crashes are the cost, it’s still an acceptable one.

The Navy and Coast Guard might not have appreciated that truth when it came to the DASH and the Eagle Eye, nor the Army and SOCOM in the case of the Hummingbird. Though to be fair, two of the latter’s crashes destroyed very valuable sensors, adding to the pain of losing the airframes.

The Marines, however, stand by their autonomous whirlybird, accidents and all. On June 5 one pilotless K-MAX lay in ruins in Afghanistan, but another quickly took its place. And according to Beers, “the K-MAX aircraft continues to operate.”

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