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Unmanned Logistics Support

21st century robotic beasts of burden

Army unmanned logistics systems comprise “a broad range of potential unmanned systems applications are being explored for logistics including the use of cargo unmanned air resupply, ground cargo transport, robotics-based packaging, warehousing, refueling, material handling and waterborne equipment discharge [ship-to-shore]. Current robotics research areas include development of advanced perception capabilities, intelligence, dexterous manipulation, micro autonomous systems and improved human-machine interfaces.”

The USMC’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1 (VMU-1) Cargo Detachment flew two K-MAX rotorcraft during the initial six-month deployment, beginning in December 2011, then turned the aircraft over to VMU-2 when the field test was extended through March 2013. The K-MAX established a 90 percent mission capability record, with half the downtime attributed to inclement weather and the remainder to maintenance and scheduling issues.

Capt. Caleb Joiner, CRUAS mission commander, said the K-MAX was more responsive in getting supplies to forward-deployed Marines than a ground convoy or even manned helicopter, with turnaround times by the end of the first six-month test down to 7 minutes or less.

K-MAX

A detachment of Marines from Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1 in Afghanistan completed their first unmanned aerial system cargo delivery in a combat zone, Dec. 17, 2011. The unmanned helicopter moved about 3,500 pounds of food and supplies from Camp Dwyer to troops at Combat Outpost Payne. The helicopter, an unmanned variant of the K-MAX, completed the delivery in about an hour and a half. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Justin M. Boling

“That was a pretty short turnaround time and allowed us to conduct six sorties per night. We could have done more,” he added.

Vice Adm. David Architzel, commander of Naval Air Systems Command, which manages the program with the Marines, called it “a great example of integration while fulfilling the ‘urgent needs’ of the warfighter. Every time you can eliminate even a portion of a convoy, you eliminate the possibility of someone losing their life from an IED on the roads.”

As the K-MAX field assessment was extended, the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory (MCWL) asked industry for concepts via a request for information (RFI) for a smaller UAV to support forward-deployed squads. Requirements for the Enhanced MAGTF (Marine Air-Ground Task Force) Operations Aerial Delivery (EMO AD) system included the ability to deliver payload packages of no less than 250 pounds each and a minimum capacity of 500 pounds to multiple locations, including autonomous ship-to-objective aerial resupply of geographically distributed combat units up to 50 nautical miles from shore.

“No longer are we looking at a large airframe that needs a large footprint to support it,” Lt. Col. Sean McPherson, head of MCWL’s Aviation Combat Element Branch, said, adding the mission goal would be to provide daily resupply to units as small as a squad.

“In response to significant changes to the nature of combat operations across the range of conflicts, the USMC has identified the need to create a family of flexible and scalable aerial systems that would enable an enhanced MAGTF to support two platoons of a Company Landing Team (CLT) operating in a distributed environment,” the RFI stated.

“Although the typical size of an individual combat unit requiring logistic support is a Marine Corps company, the flexibility to occasionally resupply smaller units may also prove beneficial. Logistics support may be required from naval vessels directly to tactical ground maneuver units.”

The USMC and Army are working closely to share analyses and test results under the Joint Capabilities Technology Demonstration (JCTD). The long-term goal: more autonomous cargo UAVs to better support responsive, flexible, and integrated joint sustainment operations.

 

Unmanned/Limited Manned Convoys

ILA also is leading the Army’s effort to take drivers out of existing ground transport vehicles, as outlined in the 2011 “Joint Ground Robotics Integration Team” plan. While the Marine Corps has taken the lead in the air, the Army is leading the way on the ground in two key areas of R&D – driverless trucks and walking robots.

As explained in ILA’s description of its mandate, it has been tasked to work with other DoD components to “conduct analysis and exploration with ground robotics capabilities to improve logistics speed, minimize exposure to dangerous operations and support future unmanned capabilities. … Current focus is on material handling capabilities … ” ILA R&D has “successfully demonstrated an initial unmanned robotic forklift that can operate in an unstructured military environment and interact with humans in a natural way using voice, gesture and other multi-modal command capabilities.”

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...