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Automating the logistics that underpin dispersed operations is a priority for the US Department of Defense (DoD) due to the resource-intensive nature of operating from many small bases. More bases mean more anti-aircraft weapons, ammunition depots, communications equipment, fuel storage, aircraft hangars, maintenance personnel and soldiers.

The US Army wants to use robots to reduce the number of personnel needed to refuel helicopters at remote way stations, potentially allowing its fleet to fly further without a heavy logistical ground-based footprint. The Pentagon sees dispersed operations as a way to avoid having its forces wiped out in a single ballistic or cruise missile attack from advanced adversaries such as China and Russia.

With this regard, the Army granted start-up RE2 Robotics a $1 million contract to develop a robotic arm for the purpose of autonomously refueling Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopters in the field.

The service Funding for the robotic arm refueling project, called Remote Robotic Refueling for Extended Missions, comes from the US Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation & Missile Center. 

The robotic arm system is mounted on an unmanned ground vehicle made by Pratt Miller. It is capable of autonomously placing a fuel nozzle into the AH-64’s fuel port and disconnecting when the helicopter is topped off. The robot can operate in an “unstructured, outdoor environment” using multiple sensors that create “3D situational awareness”, says the company.

Thanks to its unmanned capabilities, the arm will enable troops to extend the range of their missions while eliminating the need for soldiers to remain isolated at refueling stations, further reducing the size of a mission’s logistical footprint. Removing soldiers from the fuelling stations – a potential target of adversaries – would also reduce casualty risks, the US Army has said, according to flightglobal.com.