At the start of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, two of the villains were arguing about taking on a high-risk mission.
"Send the droid," one of them says.
Well, if the Army has its way and a new prototype unmanned plane enters the arsenal, "send in the droid" could have a whole new meaning for todays soldiers and other troops.
Over the last few months, the Army has begun preliminary tests on a new prop-driven drone dubbed the Joint Tactical Aerial Resupply Vehicle, or JTARV at Aberdeen Proving Ground and Picatinny Arsenal.
The service realizes resupply convoys can be vulnerable to attack. An Army Research Laboratory release from earlier this month noted that 60 percent of the combat casualties in 2013 occurred during resupply missions. Yet, the resupply of troops is crucial — especially in the heat of combat.
During the 1993 firefight in Mogadishu, for example, helicopters re-supplied the Rangers who were protecting the crash site of Super Six-One at substantial risk.
Had the JTARV prototypes been available, instead of sending manned choppers, a drone could have delivered 300 pounds of ammo and gear (like night-vision devices, grenades, and MREs) without risking a downed crew.
Time to get the supplies? About a half-hour.
See if Domino's can beat that!
Improved versions of the JTARV could haul even more supplies – about 800 pounds – and take them further, with a total range of 125 miles. This could be very useful for long-range reconnaissance patrols or for resupplying remote outposts like those once manned by soldiers in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan.
The JTARV is a combined project from SURVICE Engineering Company and Malloy Aerospace. Malloy is a British company which is best known for making the Hoverbike. The Hoverbike is, in essence, a one-person helicopter that can travel about 92 miles, and looks like a very primitive version of the speeder bikes used in Return of the Jedi.
SURVICE Engineering is a Maryland-based defense contractor that has supported research and development for the Pentagon. Located near Aberdeen Proving Ground, SURVICE Engineering has been involved in supporting the development of technology for land combat forces.
The Marine Corps has already been in the unmanned cargo delivery game for a while. An unmanned version of the Kaman K-Max helicopter was used for re-supply missions from December 2011 to May 2014 during Operation Enduring Freedom. The K-Max has a range of 267 miles and can deliver up to 6,000 pounds of cargo while flying at speeds of up to 115 mph.
Boeing has also been developing the H-6U Unmanned Little Bird for this mission as well, trying to leverage the proven track record of the OH-6 Cayuse scout helicopter and the AH-6/MH-6 Little Bird choppers used by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (the Nightstalkers) in American military service.
The H-6U's case is also assisted by the widespread ownership of the MD 500 series of helicopters across the globe for both civilian and military applications. This means that spare parts are readily available (not a small consideration for military operations). The H-6U would be faster with a top speed of 175 miles per hour, but could only haul about 1,500 pounds of cargo over the same 267 mile range.
Things are changing, but the one thing that remains the same is the need for the troops to be resupplied. But instead of asking for volunteers, soon a general's response may well be, "Send the droid."