BALTIMORE — With Marines scattered around dozens of outposts in Iraq and Afghanistan, delivering essential supplies and equipment in a timely fashion has stressed the capacity of the service’s logistics and transportation systems.
As a result, scientists are pondering new ways to employ robotics technology to extend the reach of supply delivery networks.
In recent months, researchers at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico, Va., have experimented with unmanned aircraft that can deliver equipment and supplies to the battlefield without human assistance.
The goal is to find more cost-efficient methods to transport packages to smaller units that are dispersed throughout large areas, officials said.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, where units are far apart from each other, delivering supplies quickly across long distances requires new ways of thinking about logistics, said Brig. Gen. Thomas Murray, commander of the laboratory.
Sending smaller quantities of supplies to multiple locations with conventional transport aircraft such as the V-22 Osprey and the CH-53K Super Stallion has turned out to be wasteful and costly, Murray told the National Defense Industrial Association’s Marine Corps Systems Command conference for industry.
It is not unusual for aircraft that have a 3,000-pound cargo capacity to fly on re-supply mission that only requires 500 pounds of cargo. That is an inefficient way of doing business, he said. “We’re looking at ways to narrow that down to the size load that we need.”
Commanders not only want to find more efficient ways to transport supplies, they also want to take those manned delivery aircraft out of harm’s way, said Murray.
“Why send in this huge heat signature with a crew of four, six, or eight on board … and risk detection and failure of that mission?” Murray asked.
In response to these concerns, researchers at the lab are seeking ways to deploy unmanned aircraft as a cheaper and safer re-supply option. Murray said he would eventually like to have low-cost “expendable” unmanned aircraft that could be deployed to drop off cargo but not be required to return.
The Marine Corps first released a “sources sought” solicitation to industry in October 2006, which laid out technical parameters for a logistics-focused unmanned aircraft, said Capt. Jamie Conrad, project officer at the lab. These drones should be able to carry a minimum of 200 pounds, with an optimal weight of 800 pounds. They should have a delivery accuracy of 200 meters and be able to transport cargo to areas 20 miles away to 200 miles away. Additionally, the aircraft need to be able to launch from austere airfields, Conrad said in an interview.
So far, the lab has tested Boeing’s Little Bird unmanned demonstrator — a modified MD 530F single-turbine helicopter that can be operated as a manned or unmanned aircraft.
Engineers conducted a test in April, evaluating Little Bird’s range, speed and drop and landing accuracy, Conrad said. Several other unmanned aircraft concepts are being considered, he added.
Lab officials expect to evaluate other technologies for unmanned aerial delivery methods in September 2009 during a “live force experiment,” said Conrad.
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