As Japan struggles to control the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, radiation has made the work dangerous to workers for even brief periods. Imagine if a drone helicopter could precisely drop water or chemicals on the reactors. One can.
For the past several months, Lockheed Martin and Kaman Aerospace have been testing in Arizona a drone version of the KMAX synchropter — the dual-bladed chopper used mostly in remote construction work. But the idea of a remote-controlled full-size helicopter was patented by the synchropter's inventor, Charles Kaman, in 1954.
Kaman isn't a household name, but he ranks among the smartest American inventors of the past century. After graduating magna cum lauda from Catholic University, Kaman got his start at United Technologies in 1940, the company founded by helicopter pioneer Igor Sikorsky. At the time, helicopters were extremely unstable, and Kaman, who had toyed with gliders and planes since childhood, had ideas he thought could make helicopters as easy to operate as cars.
Since his United Tech bosses wouldn't let him work on helicopters, Kaman worked in his spare time, using a '33 Pontiac engine, a old Dodge transaxle, a bathroom scale and some pieces of balsa wood as a test bed. He perfected a way to stabilize helicopters by using small flaps on the ends of the main rotors. He also developed the idea of a twin-rotor chopper, whose blades would intermesh.
When he presented his ideas to his bosses, he was told the company already had an inventor, and didn't need another. So Kaman quit.
He founded his own firm with $2,000 borrowed from two friends, and Kaman Aerospace bumped along for years, almost hand-to-mouth. To show how stable his machines were, Kaman staged a series of publicity stunts in 1948, including this one caught by LIFE photographer Bernard Hoffman where the Kaman K190 touched its wheels on the plywood squares held by women; the one in front was Kaman's wife Roberta.
Eventually, Kaman helicopters would be used by the U.S. government in Korea and Vietnam as supply and rescue craft. Last year, the U.S. Marines bought two remote-piloted K-MAX synchropters, to be tested for supply missions in Afghanistan.
In late January, the K-MAX passed a series of tests at a proving ground in Yuma, Ariz., including dropping 4,400 lbs. in payload from a height of 10,000 feet above sea level —a record for a remote-piloted helicopter.
While Japanese armed forces have been able to drop some water on Fukushima by helicopter as well as using huge water hose-equipped trucks to spray water, they have to be far closer to the plant — about 350 feet above the reactor. Even at that height, the leaking radiation is strong enough to force pilots to move on quickly, and attempts so far have proven so ineffective the radical decision to just bury the reactors in dirt and debris is being considered.
Kaman spokesman George Schaefer told Jalopnik that "some inquiries have been made to Kaman to support the Japan situation with Unmanned K-MAX. No official decisions have been made to deploy it."
Charles Kaman died in January at the age of 91. His helicopters never replaced cars, but Kaman estimated they saved 15,000 people over the years without a design failure. Helping to bring the Fukushima reactor under control could be Kaman's greatest rescue yet.