Speed, distance and adaptive distribution – the rise of the logistics UAV

By Jason Sibley.

The use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) continues to become more common.  We are all familiar with the military use of UAV’s, and their indispensable role  in performing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, command and control nodes, force protection and ordnance delivery without the need for the deployment of troops on the ground (or, more appropriately, in the air). Now militaries, enthused by what they see in the commercial sector, are greatly interested in the use of UAV for logistics tasks. I believe this enthusiasm is warranted. This technology offers the ability to deliver flexibility for the transportation of supplies over long distances, with speed, and without exposing military personnel to the dangers of combat distribution tasks. This capability will be vital in enabling combat forces to disperse on the battlefield more than they have ever been, and offer logisticians new means to distribute across the complex battlespace.

The logistics UAV is a capability that can be introduced relatively quickly with limited developmental cost given the tremendous investment being made in the commercial applications of the technology. Large commercial companies like Amazon, UPS, and Deutsche Post DHL Group (DPDHL) have ambitious programs with respect to this technology. For example, UPS is trialling the Workhorse ‘HorseFly’ UAV Delivery as an attachment to the roof of a standard delivery truck. When an employee in a truck places a delivery in a specific place that the UAV can identify; the UAV scans the barcode and leaves with the parcel to find the specific address. This address may be off the main route being followed by the truck. Once the package is delivered, the UAV returns and places itself on top of the moving delivery truck again to get ready for another delivery. This approach is an innovative use of ‘small-UAV’ distribution that reduces the travel requirements of the employees and allows for greater mobility of delivery into difficult/congested areas without physically having to reach the location.

UPS Drone Fig 1

A UPS Workhorse ‘HorseFly’ drone in action; photo by UPS here.

Although the ‘HorseFly’ is a good example of how a UAV can be employed to aid distribution to dispersed combat forces, there are a multitude of other tasks for UAV’s which may improve logistics activities, if not increase logistics efficiency. EasyJet, a UK based low-cost airline company is looking into the use of UAVs for the speedy delivery of spare parts to the hangers around Europe due to the increasing burden of slower road transport system. EasyJet, as mandated by the EU, must compensate passengers for flight delays of over 3 hours and therefore have a vested interest in increasing the efficiency of delivery spare parts. In an article in Flight Global magazine in 2015, EasyJet engineer Ian Davies claims that a UAV with a payload could be employed to carry out hub to hub flights across country or even into neighbouring countries; providing instant availability for moving parts[i]. The proposed UAVs could carry 50kgs in the short term until a 200kg capacity could be developed. Coupled with this, EasyJet is conducting trials of drones in maintenance hangers. The drones, known as ‘Riser’ are programed to scan and assess any aircraft damage and enhance the maintenance team’s ability to undertake remote checks leading to time efficiency and greater accuracy in defect reporting. This is a process currently being conducted manually by staff.

The military use of UAV’s in support of logistics tasks has been led by the US military. There have been two primary purposes uses for UAV’s in contemporary combat settings. The first reason is one of surveillance, and the second is delivery. With respect to the former, UAVs contributed by conducting convoy overwatch. Situational awareness has become key to survival for US Army units, including logistics formations, and such, they intend to use the innovation found in the use of UAVs to reduce the footprint on the ground, enhance convoy security and promote real time, positive control. Admittedly, there have been problems with this application of the technology. A recent RAND study examining operations in Iraq found the short periods in which enemies could be seen in contemporary, often urban, environment limited the use of UAV’s for convoy overwatch. Alternatively, in Afghanistan where the length of convoy routes and the difficulty of the terrain rendered non-UAV solutions impractical (e.g. the US could not maintain mast-mounted cameras for the circumference of the ring road), the use of UAV in support of logistics operations was far more effective.

The use of UAV’s for actual distribution tasks is a ‘hot’ topic among US capability developers at the moment.  According to the Marine Corps Concepts and Programs – Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO), the concept of autonomous logistics operations is to provide responsive sustainment of equipment and supplies down to the dismounted platoon to ensure resupply capability. This includes supplies, maintenance, recovery and casualty evacuation of up to 3600kgs. The USMC has been actively employing developing an unmanned helicopter, the K-MAX Cargo Unmanned Aircraft System (CUAS), which can carry 2700kgs of supplies. 37 K-MAX unmanned helicopters flew 1,730 resupply sorties for the Marine Corps in Afghanistan, delivering four million pounds (1.8 million kgs) of cargo.

Interestingly, the USMC is also looking at options for unmanned casualty evacuation systems. One such system is the Aerial Reconfigurable Embed System (ARES) (Fig 7) that is tailored logistics to provide a pod capable of delivering medical supplies or retrieving battle casualties from ship to shore. The ARES will potentially be linked to the development of the Ground Unmanned Support Surrogate – Autonomous Internally Transportable Vehicle (GUSS-AITV) which is approximately the size of a High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) and is capable carrying either two walking casualties, one litter, or carry750kgs of cargo approximately 450kms in a GPS waypoint or ‘follow me’ directive.  The end state for these innovations is to reduce the number of convoys, reduce the footprint on the ground and enhance the responsiveness of logistics regardless of time, personnel, equipment and terrain limitations.


Artists impression of the ARES System, Image by USMC


For smaller armies without access to the resources to engage in extensive R&D programs, such as the Australian Army, the successes achieved by other militaries with respect to their own logistics UAV programs should be reassuring. Aside from the US and UK, Israel, South Korea and Taiwan, have begun to develop increasingly sophisticated unmanned platform capabilities for logistics tasks. An Australian Senate committee investigating the use of UAV technology within the ADF saw there was great possibility for UAV’s to reduce risks to personnel and to extend the future capabilities of the ADF. It is clearly the time to seriously investigate the technology, and its applicability for logistics tasks to the future land force. With no mention of logistics UAV’s in the 2016 Defence White Paper (DWP)  or accompanying capability development plans there is a chance that the ADF might fail to invest in this vital technology; overlooking the potential of unmanned systems to be significant force multipliers, allowing us to leverage our technological advantages over potential adversaries. Nonetheless, I suspect that what we have before us is a question of ‘when’ and not ‘if’.

In the meantime, it is well worth examining options as to how logistics UAVs might be employed on the modern battlefield. If UPS and Amazon can deliver goods via a UAV on a truck, can we conceivably introduce this technology with existing fleets of vehicles? Do we have the confidence to employ a UAV in a CASEVAC role? If EasyJet engineers can send spares by UAV to keep aircraft operational, how can engineers use UAVs to keep our fleets and equipment functional over long distance to the ever increasingly mobile fighting elements? Would the UAV replace trucks and become ubiquitous throughout the land force? Are specialists required to operate the UAV’s as distinct from generalist logisticians? These basic questions only scratch the surface when it comes to the introduction of UAV’s into the logistics space, but they do allude to the fact that it is a technology that will revolutionise the way in which logisticians will conduct their business on the battlefield.

It is no revelation that there is a considerable difference between the use of logistics UAV’s in the commercial environment and their use on the battlefield. Nonetheless there is much to learn from the commercial application of the technology; a testing ground that reveals much about the revolutionary way in which UAV technology can change practice. Many militaries are starting to capitalise on these developments, and engage in their own programs that will enable logistics operations in hostile areas and supporting troops on the move. By creating efficiencies and enhancing responsiveness they are already seeing that UAV’s offer the potential to improve the speed by which units can be supported. Logistics UAV’s enable support to move cheaply, with less risk to personnel and major logistics vehicles, thereby enabling the dispersal of combat forces. With the technology having already arrived, and the developmental risk to introducing the technology into Army reducing ever day, it is now time for logisticians and capability developers to seriously get behind its introduction.

Captain Jason Sibley is an Australian Army transport officer currently posted to the Army School of Transport.

[i] Stevenson B, 2015, ‘EasyJet: Send spares by UAV’, Flight Global magazine, Brussels

One thought on “Speed, distance and adaptive distribution – the rise of the logistics UAV

  1. Our company SOAPdrones recently presented one of our heavy lift drone prototypes at the Avalon Air Show in Australia. For three days straight we talked about the importance of transportation within the military and how our systems could drastically change the shape of military logistics. Unfortunately not everyone agreed and most people only saw drones as useful for weapons and surveillance systems.

    I know that the drones we are building are future ‘helicopter-killers’ that will drastically change military logistics. I also believe that logistics win wars and greatly reduces casualties.

    I just want to make the point that even though most are still getting their heads around your argument, there are definitely people who are able to influence broadly who do get and agree with what you’re saying. We have proposals (decisions pending) in with Defence to help fund our company’s growth to commercialisation and are grateful have the support of the Australian Army for these proposals.


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