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.



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