Resupplying Tomorrow’s Battlefield

This week it was announced that UPS and Amazon are one-step closer to making drone delivery a reality. With the FAA releasing new rules related to drones weighing more than a half of a pound, it is making way for drone integration into U.S. airspace. The day of routine package delivery by drone is getting closer and both Amazon and UPS have been testing drone delivery and have indicated that this technology is not far off. With new technologies blurring the line between military and civilian use, capabilities such as the use of drones to deliver items will more likely come out of the commercial industry. Realizing this, the Army is answering the call made by many to “accelerate change” or “risk losing a high-end fight” and is going back to being innovation leaders and taking a closer look at non-traditional Defense technology. In particular, how Soldiers are resupplied is being re-examined, and has the Army asking themselves, “Can we learn something from companies like Amazon and UPS?” Due to the tremendous impact this could have on the battlefield, this potential change in how re-supply is conducted is being given serious consideration. Studies have shown that 52% of all U.S. military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan occurred during attacks on land-based resupply missions (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Over half of U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan occurred during resupply missions.

With the next conflict likely to be against a near-peer adversary, the re-supply of Soldiers will become even more of a challenge as dispersed units may not be able to be resupply by traditional convoys in combat. Because of this, the Army is taking a hard look for new ways to resupply its Soldiers.


Figure 2. Soldiers of the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment receive supplies from a Joint Tactical Aerial Resupply Vehicle (JTARV)

As drone technology develops, Army planners are looking to them as both a threat and opportunity to attack enemy forces while defending friendly units. Others in the military are focused on delivering supplies. Instead of convoys of heavy, vulnerable trucks or people-filled helicopters dropping off supplies to units in remote locations, a drone could continually resupply on demand (Figure 2). However, battery-powered drones have a major drawback: flight time. Most drones run for less than 30 minutes before needing to be recharged. That’s fine for a scouting drone doing a quick reconnaissance, but what about drones that will be used for logistics? Army researchers are tackling that problem with a range of methods. One of these methods includes an Unmanned Ground Vehicle (UGV) winding across the land space, acting as a charging station for drones as they conduct their resupply missions. Currently, recharging involves drones landing on a UGV and being plugged in by a Soldier. While this is a good first step, it quickly becomes impractical to have a Soldier plugging in a swarm of drones. Because of this, the first goal of the Army effort for recharging drones is to remove the Soldier from that chain of events and allow for touch charging, much like a smartphone on a charging pad where the drone can land on the UGV and charge without having to be hooked up. The long-term goal is to achieve wireless recharging so that drones could land on a UGV and receive their charge, which would save time and space. Wireless charging would remove the major hurdle of landing the drone in the correct orientation.

As the Army continues to evaluate new technology for wirelessly charging Soldier systems, commercial capabilities continue to grow. Wireless charging has existed in the consumer market for many years and shipments of wireless-charging base stations are expected to pass 500 million annually in the next few years. While this is mainly driven by smaller applications for the home, this technology is proven and scalable for larger applications. This growth is driven by the expanding number of consumer electronics devices that support or even rely on wireless power for battery charging. Not surprisingly, OEMs are seeking a competitive edge by developing devices that produce higher efficiency, a smaller footprint, and lower system cost. Technology, such as Gallium nitride (GaN), is resulting in smaller, more efficient wireless charging solutions. When re-packaged in mechanical housings that can meet the requirements for austere environments, this faster and more efficient wireless charging can be tested for military applications, such as drone-based resupply.

How the Army will conduct future resupply operations is being evaluated but there is no doubt that tomorrow’s battlefield will be less and less charged by traditional charging methods. The energy needs of the future Soldier will be electrical, and how-to re-supply that Warfighter is critical. When it comes to re-supply, the Army has a choice: either long lines of trucks to transport fuel or fleets of drones that can safely supply Soldiers without placing them in harm’s way. The Army has made tremendous strides by providing Soldiers the advanced capabilities to recharge batteries and advances in battery chemistry and construction allowing for a lighter, more resilient battery. However, without a reliable logistics chain, these technologies can quickly become useless so the use of drones on the battlefield makes more and more sense. And while these drones need to be designed and developed to meet harsh environments, they quickly become ineffective if not supported with Soldier accepted charging solutions. Wireless charging removes the need for human interaction by eliminating connectors and cables and allows the Warfighter to focus on the fight, and not on plugging in drones.

What are the logistic giants in the consumer industry doing to accelerate the adoption of drone delivery and can it be adopted for the battlefield? This question will be discussed in next month’s blog.

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