Automate the Freight: Front Line Deliveries by Drone

Gen. Robert H. Barrow, USMC, once said that “Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.” That’s true in many enterprises, but in warfare, the side that neglects logistics is likely to be the loser. Keeping soldiers fed, clothed, and armed is the very essence of effectively prosecuting a war, and the long logistical chain from rear supply depots to forward action is what makes that possible.

Armies have had millennia to optimize logistics, and they have always maximized use of new technologies to position supplies where they’re needed. Strong backs of men and beasts sufficed for centuries, supplemented by trains in the 19th century and supplanted by motor vehicles in the 20th. Later, aircraft made an incalculable impact on supply chains, allowing rapid mobilization of supplies and supporting the industrial scale death and destruction of the 20th-century’s wars.

But no matter how supplies make it from the factories to supply depots within the theater of operations, eventually they have to get to front line units. That can pose huge problems, especially for units that are cut off from support by enemy action, or by Special Forces units deliberately operating within enemy territory. Keeping them in ammo and MREs can be a logistical nightmare.

It’s no surprise then to learn that the US Marine Corps is looking at drones as a way of keeping front line troops supplied. In this day of advanced, heavy-lift multi-copters and long-range semi-autonomous drones like the Predator or Global Hawk, you’d figure such a program would have all the bells and whistles to deliver pork to some defense contractor. But it turns out that USMC’s Tactical Air Delivery (TACAD) is so simple it almost makes you wonder why nobody has done it before.

Scale model of the TACAD drone glider. Source: American Military Forum

The TACAD drone is planned to be a glider that can carry up to 500 pounds of supplies. Dropped from a cargo plane orbiting at 35,000 feet safely behind the front lines, the 15:1 glide ratio allows it to cover perhaps 85 miles to its target, guided by GPS and controlled by regular hobby servos.

Here’s the kicker: it’s totally disposable. Built from plywood and designed for exactly one use, the glider simply flies to the landing zone and crash lands. One assumes there will be some kind of provision made for a “controlled flight into terrain” so that the supplies don’t have to be overpackaged or limited to only the most robust items, but even so, there’s no intention to reuse the drone.

One-time use is a huge benefit to TACAD over competing systems, like the US Army’s Joint Precision Airdrop System, which uses GPS-guided paragliders that are expensive enough to demand recovery by the forward units for eventual reuse. JPADS adds to the burden of the soldiers it supplies, since they have to hump the 30-pound units back out of the field, while TACAD demands nothing after its job is done and even provides materials that might prove useful to the soldiers.

Whether either of these systems is ever fielded remains to be seen. I’d put money on at least one of them seeing action — the idea of quickly resupplying dug-in troops from stand-off distances is just too good to pass up for the professionals who ponder logistics for a living. The cynic in me says that like any military project, it’s likely to get larded up with unnecessary complications so the denizens of Congress can be seen as bringing the bacon back home to their districts. TACAD is an idea that derives its power from its simplicity, but even if it does get overcomplicated it’s another great use case for automated delivery.

49 thoughts on “Automate the Freight: Front Line Deliveries by Drone

  1. Any time I read about automated logistics, i’m reminded of the book “The Big Lifters” by Dean Ing. A former aerospace engineer, Ing wrote SF and thrillers in the 80s often featuring odd aircraft, predicting murder by drone (Butcher Bird), solar-powered aircraft that could stay aloft for weeks (Ransom of Black Stealth One), and this book, where a man, crippled as a youth by steel coming off a semi-truck into his mother’s car (also killing his mother), becomes a transportation magnate, funding such projects as delta dirigibles for lifting cargo containers off moving trains, supersonic maglev trains (not the same ones), and and a zero fuel SSTO launch.

  2. This drone does not look very compostable, especially if there’s glue, paint, batteries, servos and electronics involved, so I’d put it the other way and say they produce lots of trash wherever they get supplies and will dump it wherever. Sounds like a real environmental mess.

    1. Don’t wage offensive wars, and you’ll have no logistics problems.
      But considering that none will actually listen to that piece of advice, here is another: Make them completely soft inflatable construction. Once they land, GI’s deflate and compact them into a small volume camo bag to minimize litter (and the visibility from enemy air reconnaissance, if there’ll be any). Depending on a base material, the remains of the glider may as well be recyclable if recovered later.

        1. Would be, if it was Defensive (and some smart-ass hadn’t gone and outsourced most of the critical parts to the end of a 12000 km long JIT logistics line because “moar efficient” and the consumable supplied with derivatives contracts rather than physical storage “because cash not bound up in inventory is good”).

          Thinking about it, we actually cannot fight a defensive war. The JIT-logistics machine will blow up on day one as will the derivatives.

    2. I agree. They should make the drone parts usable on the front line. Or, at very least, make the body of the drone a storage container that can be re-used.
      For example make the structure of PBX, and the batteries usable in field comm / support equipment. I can’t think of a good field expedient use of servos off hand, but I’m sure there is something good you could do with them.

        1. you can build an ied out of anything really. cell phone, transistor and blasting cap for example.

          you can probibly get the electronics down in size a lot, and the servos used are just off the shelf units. these components can be easily removed and destroyed, it might be the standard procedure when a drone is received. almost all the useful parts can be destroyed easily with a rifle butt. besides im sure the terrorists could just buy any servos they need from china like everyone else.

    3. Although the shooting of many bullets (made of heavy metal for the obvious mechanical reason of attaining a high mass to drag ratio and thus more kinetic energy to provide punch and longer range from reduced drag) and it’s tendency to leave slugs and the fragments and dust thereof (mainly lead and depleted uranium, neither environmentally friendly) all over the place is a much bigger environmental impact then a relatively small number of wooden gliders each bearing a small amount of electronic gear and servo motors + batteries.

      The town I grew up in had a gun factory that was active from some time in 1883 until some time in 1978 and then the grounds out back (abutting a park, creek, and waterfall) became a Superfund site as they contained the test firing range for the finished guns and some samples of topsoil they took turned out to be 25% lead (!) by mass. Last I knew they had hauled off 6000 tons of contaminated soil and still had a fair bit to go.

      My point being, in the big picture, if such a delivery glider ends a siege and shaves days, weeks, or months off the total duration of active armed conflict it may well be an environmental win even if it were made of styrofoam and carried NiCd batteries just on the basis that the metals that are inexpensive I’m bulk and have the mechanical properties required for an effective bullet are all disastrous from an environmental standpoint.

      1. “”” if such a delivery glider ends a siege and shaves days, weeks, or months off the total duration of active armed conflict”””
        It is a FAILURE! The goal of any armed conflict “we” enter these days is to keep the pot boiling at a manageable level and NEVER EVER end anything, never mind “winning” the whatever-it-is-this-time (since “we” don’t use bad words like War any more).

        The reality is that “We” have been “losing” for several decades now, because persistent failure is rewarded so much more richly, politically and monetarily, than rapid some would say fleeting success.

        1. Nah, I’m pretty sure we’ve also had wars to topple governments and erect puppet states, and various other reasons besides enriching contractor companies.

    4. Unless it’s very remote back country you can bet your ass the local populace will be around to scavange whatever parts they can once the combat is over. War zones have a tendency to deprive the civilian population of means, meaning they scavange anything to get some food or build something useful to them. Batteries and electronics seem like the sort of thing one might want to gather up. Wood and other materials will probably decompose over time.

    5. “Sounds like a real environmental mess.”

      Yes, a serious flaw because environmental cleanliness is always a top priority during wars. Mind the UXOs, please.

  3. Most items made for the military are contractually required to be robust enough to hurl out the cargo doors of a passing truck/plane/chopper onto hard ground and still be useful, and then are over packed by default on top of that. This just gets more true as you move down the spectrum to essential consumables like MREs, spare boots, tents, field fortifications, and ammunition. They don’t mess around when it comes to sturdy…

    On a related note, does anybody know of the MRR instructions still refer to the infamously silly “rock or something” in the heating instructions?

      1. Air activated ration heaters could be a problem if the wrapping breaks down or gets pierced. If a bunch of them packed together don’t go up in flames, wrapping failure would just have them burn out and be useless.

        At a local store they once had a bunch of hand warmers on clearance because some idiot used a hole punch to make holes to hang them on shelf pegs so air got to one of the two compartments of the package. So to warm both hands you had to buy two, but they were real cheap. :)

  4. How about a Rogallo or RamAir parachute with steering (2 servos are enough – see “R/C skydiving”). A steeper glide path but less forward speed = less impact damage. Plus does not need a special deployment system: just kick it out of a plane’s door.
    And recovering is as easy as stuffing the parachute and line (plus small steering box) into a duffle bag.

    Oh wait, I just described the JPADS or the Cassidian ParaLander. Only that such implementations currently cost way too much to be one-shots (ca. $300.000 for one dirigible parachute according to http://www.militaryaerospace.com/articles/2014/04/computer-parachute-airdrop.html). So I guess the “throwaway” drone might become as expensive, too…

    1. This doesn’t need special deployment either. Modern cargo planes deploy out the tail all the time. Sure you’re giving up cargo volume but, in theory, you’re protecting an aircraft from getting shot down.
      As for damage from landing, wouldn’t simply flaring to the point to stalling greatly mitigate this damage?

  5. Disposable plywood gliders were used to resuply France with allied forces in WWII, so it’s hardly new!
    I’m surprised they’re not just using off-the-shelf GPS-capable drones. Given the development costs of any army project, surely junking a DJI to get a few MREs to a squad would be cost effective? And sometimes you’d have enough juice left to get them home.

    1. One was depicted in “The Longest Day”.
      The Germans found one with all of its occupants dead, including a Staff Officer with a copy of the D-Day invasion plan in his satchel (He was forbidden to bring the orders). The Germans assumed his invasion plan copy was fake, because, you know, it would be stupid to transport them behind enemy lines…

  6. Law of unintended consequences. Since Korea, American Marines have learned (the hard way) not to dispose of this stuff on the battlefield. The enemy will re-purpose – both the wood and the electronics (microprocessor/GPS receiver/control motors/battery) would be used against them. So not ‘disposable’.

    1. Nothing a thermite grenade can’t take care of.

      It’s a supply drop so, in theory friendly forces will intercept it quickly to recover the payload. Then they can repurpose the air frame and secure the brains. If they don’t get to it in time, then a gps module and some plywood will be the least of the worries.

  7. “One assumes there will be some kind of provision made for a “controlled flight into terrain” so that the supplies don’t have to be overpackaged or limited to only the most robust items, but even so, there’s no intention to reuse the drone.”

    As anybody who has ever worked for a company producing military hardware the amount of wear and tear a soldier puts on his gear is NOTHING compared to straight up dropping stuff from 35.000 foot. The things they manage to break are impressive. A straight and level glide into terrain at 15:1 glide ratio is no problem. Anthing these things are going to be carrying is certainly going to be specced to a level where it can survive the impact. If you need to get really fancy include a simple ultrasonic distance sensor and just pull full up elevator at the appropriate time to flare a bit.

  8. How about something like the Goodyear Inflatoplane? Could be simpler and less rugged since it wouldn’t need to carry a person. Have it wrapped around the cargo crate, kick it out the back and the line that normally opens the parachute unleashes the wings, tail, and a gas cannister to inflate. Could also have an inflated bumper on the front and bottom to cushion landing.

    1. ‘Bottom’ has a way of redefining itself in combat flight conditions. Especially when someone manages to hit your inflatable with a well placed round.
      The US Army field manual has been training soldiers to properly aim at aircraft for decades. Somehow I doubt only those soldiers have the knowledge of ‘aim up and lead the target’

      Still something has to be better than sending a helo out to hotzones for food and ammo drops.

      1. The pump that keeps it inflated could cope with a few bullet holes but like the GPS guided para-glider it would be expensive enough to necessitate recovery by front line crews.

  9. just identify what is each drone to the troops on the ground so they know what the risk is to recover each one. You don’t want paratroopers dying to recovery a drone full of red berets (A Bridge Too Far)

  10. Russia currently have leading electronic warfare weapons in military, in best case they’ll just make these drones drop dead. Worst? Unload on their side

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