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Keeping personnel off the roads is the main driver of the emerging requirement to use unmanned systems to perform resupply missions. Add to this the advantages that comes with using an autonomous technology that never gets tired, never loses its cognitive edge, and takes human error out of the equation, and unmanned technology becomes even more attractive.
The UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) has challenged industry and academia to design autonomous systems to resupply frontline troops. As part of the its innovation initiative, £3m has been invested in the next stage of the Innovation Autonomy Challenge which will focus on the ‘last mile’ of support – getting supplies to troops. The Defense establishment draws on the rapid progress of the private sector to leverage the success of technologies such as delivery drones.
According to army-technology.com, the idea of using unmanned ground and aerial vehicles to resupply the front line is nothing new. Perhaps the most advanced instance of the technology is the US Marine Corps’ deployment of the unmanned K-MAX helicopter in Afghanistan, supplying fuel, food, ammunition and more.
The majority of systems have been developed for the US military market in (often) long running, big ticket programs with complex requirements.
The initiative, led by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), will focus on the challenging ‘last mile’ of support to find new ways of resupplying troops on the frontline through the development of autonomous systems for the unmanned delivery of combat supplies.
“The focus is on technologies that can autonomously predict, plan, track and optimise resupply demands.”
Logistics-wise, the British Army currently resupplies the frontline using a mix of air and ground platforms – helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and small, medium and large vehicles. Additionally, dismounted troops operating in the last tactical mile – which may actually be distance of up to 30km depending on the mission – need to carry individual and crew-served equipment and supplies, resulting in significant physical burden and reduced combat effectiveness.
Technologies suitable for this last mile resupply system must meet a number of basic capabilities. They must reduce the demand on existing platforms and infrastructure and reduce the risk and burden on military personnel while also increasing the efficiency of logistic operations with pace and accuracy, and providing an assured resupply capability for forward military users to enable more agile operations in complex environments.
At this stage, the MoD expects that this autonomous last mile resupply system could be carried out “by a range of unmanned delivery/resupply platforms, both ground and airborne, with high levels of autonomy in both the control of the vehicles and in the management of logistics distribution”. Resupply operations in the land environment are the focus of this competition, but that “doesn’t exclude consideration of systems/platforms/technologies designed for other environments such as littoral or for humanitarian aid and disaster relief operations”.
Dstl’s Autonomy Challenge lead Peter Stocke, said that Dstl is “particularly keen to reach out and encourage organisations that might not have worked with the defence and security sector before, such as those developing commercial driverless vehicles, delivery services and robotic agriculture, to get involved with the challenge and help us rapidly advance the way we deliver tactical military logistics”.