Korean Air demonstrates first unmanned helicopter flight, plans to convert other types

Korean Air Aerospace Division has conducted the first flight of the unmanned 500MD helicopter, and has revealed expectations to convert other aircraft types into unmanned platforms.

Pictured is Korean Air’s 500MD unmanned helicopter, which has successfully completed its maiden flight. Korean Air Photo

The inaugural flight took place at the Korea Aerospace Research Institute’s aviation center in Goeheung, South Korea, and lasted for 30 minutes. The flight test saw the helicopter take off and hover 32 feet (10 meters) above the ground.

The 500MD, which is registered as KUS-VH, is based on the MD Helicopters MD 500, and will be capable of flying for six hours with a payload of 440 kilograms (970 pounds), the company said in a press release. Korean Air has been developing the 500MD project since 2014.

The aircraft is equipped with unmanned flight control systems such as a flight control computer, tactical integrated navigation system, propulsion control system and electro-mechanical rotor actuators.

In the later stages of the 500MD’s development, “mission equipment will be available for day and night reconnaissance surveillance, further expanding its scope of use,” the company said, adding that it plans to expand the aircraft’s range and altitude through 2021 to meet customer requirements.


Korean Air conducted ground tests with the 500MD prior to the first flight to ensure the safety and performance of the flight control systems; after ground tests were completed, the company acquired a special airworthiness certification from the Defense Acquisition Program Administration for the flight.

With the success of the 500MD’s unmanned flight demonstration, the company said it hopes to convert additional aircraft types into unmanned platforms, such as the Bell UH-1H and Sikorsky UH-60, as well as Northrop’s F-5 fixed-wing fighter.

Korean Air said converting retired MD 500s to the 500MD platform would be an efficient way to the recycle the type.

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