US Army, January 21, 2016 - FORT LEE, Va. by Terrance Bell - An 1/3-scale electric drone called a hoverbike was demonstrated late last year at the U.S. Army Combined Arms Support Command at Fort Lee.
The aircraft is being developed for the Department of Defense under the Soldier Aerial Mobility Vehicle project (SAMV) as an aircraft capable of manned or unmanned operation, carrying up to an 800-pound payload and flying within a 125-mile range. The potential uses for the vehicle also include reconnaissance and logistics support.
“It’s time to get off the horse and into the Model T because this technology will be in your driveway within the next 10 years." - James Young II, chief, Experimentation, Analysis, Science and Technology Division, Sustainment Battle Lab, U.S. Army Combined Arms Support Command
For years now, the American public has been teased about the advent of drone technology – videos depicting Amazon’s flying contraptions making home deliveries and stories of Google testing driverless cars.
The prevailing image of drones, arguably, was borne out of the wars in Southeast Asia where they have been used for more than a decade as tools for surveillance and reconnaissance as well as weapons of destruction.
At some point, drone systems could benefit sustainers on the battlefield by leading convoys of trucks to deliver supplies or resupplying a forward operating base via pilotless aircraft.
If that sounds a bit futuristic, Larry Perecko is quick to interject. The branch chief, Science and Technology, in CASCOM’s Sustainment Battle Lab, said the future is now and drones have already been used during sustainment missions in Afghanistan.
“The Marine Corps used an unmanned aircraft (a helicopter called KMAX) for two years to supply forward Marine units,” he said, noting the trial was based on an urgent mission requirement. “It delivered over a million short tons of supplies using two unmanned aircraft.”
The trial was successful, added Perecko, and the Marine Corps and U.S. Navy are continuing to develop cargo unmanned aerial system capability.
In addition to that effort, the Army recently showed off a downscaled electric drone during a demonstration at CASCOM headquarters. The aircraft, called a hoverbike, is being developed by the Department of Defense under the Soldier Aerial Mobility Vehicle project.
When fully developed, the hoverbike will be capable of piloted or remote operation, a 125-mile range and a 45-mph cruising speed, according to spokesmen. Furthermore, it will have an 800-pound payload (to include the ability to transport troops).
The U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center in Warren, Mich., also demonstrated a driverless truck system at the Detroit auto show earlier this month.
The system, developed by TARDEC with support from CASCOM, uses vehicles currently in the Army’s tactical fleet. It is touted as a more efficient and safer means of ground transport.
CASCOM’s SBL, said Perecko, has a mission to scout new technologies that may have military sustainment application and identify specific mission needs and requirements to suit sustainment functions.
In the Army’s pursuit of drone technology for ground vehicles, CASCOM’s input focused on efficiency and reducing the risk to Soldiers charged with transporting materiel in the battlespace, said Perecko.
“We wanted to reduce demand by satisfying more of that demand at the point of need,” he said. “In the instance where we have to deliver things, we want to reduce risks to Soldier by automating some of those dull, dangerous and dirty tasks Soldiers currently perform like driving for eight hours on a main supply route littered with IEDs.”
For aircraft drones, the focus areas are essentially the same, but Perecko said there is the potential for more savings in resources because manned aircraft require extensive protection measures.
“Every time you use manned aircraft for sustainment, you’re taking assets away from other operational missions,” he said.
Ideally, transportation elements of the future will be multi-modal, said Perecko, capable of remotely moving materiel in more ways than one. He described a truck company that could not only transport supplies and equipment via driverless ground vehicles but also use drone aircraft assets as well.
That capability “gives a commander flexibility in what he decides to use to deliver supplies based on the threat, the location of supported units and weather conditions,” said Perecko.
Having remotely operated air assets in particular creates multiple dilemmas for adversaries, added Perecko, providing friendly forces with some measure of unpredictability as it carries out missions.
“As it stands now, the enemy pretty much knows where we are and what roads we have to use to get to where we’re trying to go,” he said. “It’s easy for them to stage themselves along those routes to either attack us or place IEDs.
“If we have the capability to used unmanned aerial assets, it won’t be as easy for them because they won’t know which routes we will take or what altitude we’ll fly, etc.”
Perecko made it clear drone technology the Army is pursuing does not exclude humans from the operations equation. Instead, it allows them to perform other missions thereby increasing the overall capability of any given logistical force.
“When we say we want to automate Soldier tasks, that does not mean we don’t need Soldiers,” he said. “That means we are freeing Soldiers up to perform other critical tasks.
“For example, Soldiers will still need to maintain vehicles and program them to operate. They also will have to monitor vehicles in the execution of its missions and load and unload them.”
The development of unmanned aircraft drones for logistical functions is far past its infancy, said Perecko. In addition to Navy and Marine Corps efforts, there are various other projects underway in industry ranging in size, function and scope. He said he recently witnessed a Blackhawk helicopter drone during a demonstration in Florida and thinks similar aircraft systems could be fielded soon.
“I think we’re going to see a lot of this technology in the next five years because the utility has been proven and there are ongoing efforts,” said Perecko, noting an important DOD flight test is scheduled for later this year.
Progress in the tactical vehicle arena seems to be further along. A semi-autonomous ground vehicle system is awaiting approval, said Perecko, and could be fielded within “the next five years.”
Efforts to develop a fully automated convoy system is now under development and could be operational within the next 10 years, added Perecko.
Funding, a lengthy approval process and regulatory concerns are potential obstacles that could delay development and fielding for any system, said Perecko, but drone technology will likely prevail and emerge to play an important role in the future of sustainment operations.