Marines Test Drone Delivery System to Resupply Distributed Units
By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent
QUANTICO, Va. — Widely separated small units of Marines conducting distributed operations and requiring immediate resupply could summon streams of unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver the needed material with a few touches on hand-held tablets under an experimental system demonstrated here March 14.
The cloud-based computer system could provide perhaps hundreds of unmanned aerial systems (UASs) operating independently to service multiple separate units, while keeping track of what was requested and delivered, with minimal human involvement, the author of the concept said.
And the controlling equipment and a “Hive” that houses, recharges, launches and recovers small quadcopter UASs could be set down in a remote location to control the resupply missions between a logistics point and the distributed combat units, said Maj. Christopher Thobaben.
Virtually everything used at the demonstration in a rugged area of this Marine Corps base were commercial, off-the-shelf items that had been put together in less than three months by a dozen private companies assembled by NexLog, the Marine Corps Logistics Command’s experimental unit, and the Pentagon’s Rapid Reaction Technology Office.
A primary purpose for the concept is to avoid the ground-based resupply process that cost hundreds of Marine casualties, destroyed trucks and millions of gallons of fuel operating on improvised explosive device-infested roads in Afghanistan and Iraq. That traditional supply system also would be impractical for the distributed operations or expeditionary advanced bases conceived by the Marine Operating Concept for future conflicts against a peer competitor.
The concept also would be a major asset in a humanitarian-assistance, disaster-relief operation, like last year’s emergency help to hurricane-ravished Puerto Rico, Thobaben said.
Although the UASs used in the proof-of-concept demo were toy-like, small quadcopters and a fixed-wing craft with vertical-takeoff-and-landing capability delivering cargoes weighing a few pounds, the system could be scaled up to manage larger drones able to provide heavier loads of ammunition, food, water, medical supplies and the replacement batteries that are so essential to the technology-rich combat units.
A description of the demo said it would test “an autonomous, point-to-point distribution system employing a mixed UAS fleet managed by a platform-agnostic software architecture in order to satisfy unique demand generated on hand-held devices by individual warfighters.” Use of the small tablets required minimal instruction.
Thobaben said a commander can prioritize in what order the requested supplies go to the units. And the system enables the commander to keep track of what has been sent and can anticipate what will be needed.
A representative from the Office of Naval Research told Thobaben ONR would work with him to ensure the system is able to operate from amphibious or logistical support ships.
The device that gives the concept its Hive name is a compact trailer, developed by Sentien Technologies, that contains multiple quadcopters on shelves that recharge their batteries and, when given an electronic supply mission order, lifts a UAS through a sliding opening in its roof. The drone starts it motor, flies off to get the ordered supplies and delivers them to the requested location. When its assigned missions are completed, or its batteries are low, the drone returns to the Hive, is lowered back inside and, if necessary, is replaced by another UAS.
An officer from the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory said a smaller version of the Hive will mounted on the back of an MRZR offroad vehicle, which can be unmanned, to serve as the hub of a scouting, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance experiment the lab will conduct at Marine Air-Ground Combat Center, California, later this year.
The Hive project is an example of Marine Commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller’s appeal to have Marines offer ideas up the chain of command.
Thobaben, a logistics officer in the Marine Corps Reserves, conceived the concept, wrote a paper on it and passed that on to another officer at the Albany, Georgia, Logistics Depot. The paper got to Lt. Gen. Michael G. Dana, deputy commandant for Installations and Logistics, who ordered a test of the concept.