60th APS assesses new Autonomous K-loader

  • Published
  • By Kenneth Abbate
  • 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

The 60th Aerial Port Squadron located at Travis Air Force Base performed an assessment on the newly acquired Autonomous K-loader May 6-10, 2024. 

The Autonomous K-loader is a complex electro-mechanical autonomous research and development prototype. It was designed and built to provide the means to assess the performance and operational value of autonomous material handling equipment in tomorrow’s aerial port. The K-loader was built by adding sensors, cameras and self-driving capability to an existing 60K Tunner Loader operated by the 60th APS. 

“The Autonomous K-loader will be used with other DoD-owned material-handling-equipment to include unmodified K-loaders, highline docks and cargo facilities to assess the value this emerging capability has to integrate with existing systems and current aerial port training,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Rowan Donado, 60th APS passenger operations flight commander. 

The prototype has the same capability as an unmodified K-loader in terms of payload and speed. Additionally, the new system is “optionally manned” meaning it can be operated normally from the driver’s cab or operated by dismounted driver using a handheld Operator Control Unit. All aspects of direction and speed, and the orientation of the cargo deck can be controlled with the OCU. Specific navigation waypoints can also be programmed using the OCU.   

“The system will progressively demonstrate the ability to dock with existing facilities, including loading docks of various designs and materials,” said Donado. “Sensors aboard the Autonomous K-loader will prove their ability to adapt to different lighting and weather conditions while carrying light and heavy cargo payloads. The next milestone calls for the Autonomous K-loader to dock with a stationary unmodified K-loader, first in open ramp space and eventually with a K-loader that is in position to load or unload an aircraft. The Autonomous K-loader will not be required to directly interface with an aircraft cargo ramp.”  

The prototype is part of a larger effort chartered by the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering OSD called the Aerial Port of the Future Concepts and Capabilities. One of the program’s goals is to employ autonomous material handling equipment in tomorrow’s aerial port. Planning includes introduction of an autonomous pallet loader which can handle a fully loaded pallet and transfer the load to and from the ground, a highline dock or a K-loader.   

“Collectively, these systems will modernize air freight operations making them safer and more reliable for tomorrow’s aerial porters,” said Donado.