Marine Corps leaders have spoken often about acquiring new aerial unmanned platforms for combat and surveillance.
But a lesser-known effort to transform logistics using drones is also gaining momentum.
The Corps' deputy commandant for Installations and Logistics, Lt. Gen. Michael Dana, said he's particularly interested in swarming technology -- a concept demonstrated by DARPA, among others, in which large numbers of tiny, inexpensive UAVs group together to launch an attack or distract and confuse the enemy.
"You put 100 of those on top of an enemy vehicle, and you can blow it up," Dana said of the swarming concept during a June interview with Military.com. "Or, if you're happy-faced people like logisticians, you put little food packages or ammo packages or different types of logistics, and you can take the swarm and send it to a destination point to provide support."
Logistics drone swarms, Dana said, would be especially handy in littoral or island environments, where Marine leaders envision troops operating with increasing regularity in the coming decade.
Swarming supply UAVs, he said, could spread out to reach dispersed locations without risking human life to accomplish the mission.
"If you had several hundred [UAVs] and only 20 or 30 get through, that beats losing human beings that are in manned aircraft trying to deliver that same kind of support," he said.
In theory, swarming supply drops could also make the Marine Corps more effective at delivering humanitarian aid and supplies to those in need after natural disasters and other crises.
Lt. Col. Howard Marotto, a senior member of the Corps' logistics innovation team and service lead for additive manufacturing, told Military.com that a current challenge for such missions is imprecise supply drops.
"The biggest problem we have with dropping relief supplies is, they don't land where they're supposed to. They land on a house or behind enemy lines, so the people who really need that materiel don't get it," he said. "And maybe if you don't have enough CH-53 [Super Stallion helicopters] or [MV-22] Ospreys, this gives us at least the capability to keep people alive for another day, to keep a unit supplied for another day."
It also gives logisticians the chance to customize the size of the mission, he added, potentially eliminating the need to send a heavy-lift helicopter for a supply mission when a few smaller UAVs would do the job.
Family of DronesSwarming drones for logistics are just one element of a family of unmanned platforms that Dana hopes will prove transformative for the service.
These UAVs will vary in size according to their use and the size of the element that they support. While the Marine Corps has test-driven various platforms -- Kaman's K-MAX, an optionally manned logistics drone, was deployed to Afghanistan with Marines for several years at the end of Operation Enduring Freedom -- officials declined, for the most part, to pick a preferred large logistics platform.
"We're not right now going to get married to one particular system or another because we really believe there are different needs that can be integrated across the battlespace for different sizes and different types," Marotto said. "I think the real trick is how do we integrate those, how do we get those to work together."
In light of what Marines believe to be the future operating environment, flexibility and disaggregation are key.
"Essentially, you're going to have something at the high end similar to K-Max ... down to the low end, where you're basically talking squad- or a platoon-level vehicle where the company gunny could use it just to move a few things around units or even on bases between barracks or things like that," Marotto said.
"And then think about, in between there, you'll have different levels of capabilities, and one of the other ideas along, with this tiered capability for distribution with the unmanned systems ... you would also have the idea maybe of being able to aggregate and disaggregate these capabilities," he said.
Picatinny PalletWhile it's not clear which platform the Corps will select for its largest logistics drones, a midsize platform may reach units as soon as next year. In collaboration with the Army, the Corps has been testing a cargo-carrying hoverbike known as the Picatinny Pallet, or Joint Tactical Aerial Resupply Vehicle. A 50-pound cargo variant of the JTARV has traveled to various Army and Marine bases to demonstrate its capacity, and has now flown 200 hours without incident, Marotto said.
"We're ramping up to a larger version here within the next year, up to about a 300-pound capability," Marotto said. "That could be fieldable; I foresee that in the fleet here within a year or two."
The hoverbike will next be sent to operational units to collect feedback and insights about the sustainment "tail" needed to operate the platform, he said.
"The technology's there," he said. "It's basically just a matter of us making sure we do it right, and we adapt it to our unique mission as Marines and we work it into our existing structure."
The JTARV, or pallet, would hit the "sweet spot" of conducting supply missions to Marines within a radius of 20 to 25 miles, Dana said.