Autonomous Drones – Next Evolution of Military Logistics

It’s been two decades since US forces began using drones. They were initially used for surveillance and reconnaissance, with the DoD acknowledging that millions of hours had been flown by 2006. As early as 2001, the CIA used the MQ-1 Predator to carry anti-tank missiles into Afghanistan. Recent conflicts have highlighted how drones can be pivotal in combat situations by providing electronic attacks, strikes, suppression or destruction of enemy air defenses, and even search and rescue operations.

Drones and autonomous technologies have proven their strategic advantages in the battlefield. And now there’s growing recognition of their advantages in another battlefield support role: logistics. Napoleon Bonaparte acknowledges this importance in his famous quote:

“Amateurs discuss tactics: professionals discuss logistics.”

Logistics are arguably the most essential capability any nation can have to support its military efforts. The history of war is replete with victories that started with disrupting the enemy’s supply lines. And reversely, armies suffered defeat because they extended their supply lines too far. General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, famously proclaimed, “Infantry wins battles, logistics wins wars.”

So, how can drones improve the capabilities of national military logistics?

Well, as it turns out, much the same way as they support commercial logistics. For commercial applications, drones can be used for two key capabilities: time-sensitive deliveries and support for “less than ideal” locations.

Well, that also sums up most combat situations.

Drone developers customize their designs and onboard technologies based on their use cases: long-duration flight times, advanced optics for surveillance, precision targeting, munition deployments, and broad arrays of sensors and tracking capabilities for continuous situational awareness.

Traverse Aero’s Orca – Form Built for Functionality

New capabilities must integrate into existing logistics frameworks in order to maximize adoption rates and effectiveness. One of the main integration points is the transport form factor. The introduction of non-standard form factors can require unpacking and repacking. Not only does this slow things down, it also introduces a “sticking point” that complicates processes and can require specialized tools or capabilities.

As simple and straightforward as that seems, most cargo drone developers miss this point.

The military, like most commercial companies, has standardized on the shipping pallet, allowing its forces to leverage the industries and equipment surrounding the 5 billion in use worldwide. Traverse Aero is likewise designing and building the Orca, an autonomous hybrid-electric eVTOL drone, to support palletized cargo with a 1.7 m3 cargo bay. The extended range of up to 1000 km and carrying capacity of up to 250 KG provides speed and flexibility while integrating seamlessly into existing supply chain operations.

Traverse Aero is also leveraging the billions of dollars already invested in commercial markets to bring an advanced level of autonomy to the Orca,  allowing it to operate in adverse conditions with minimal logistical support.

Supplying Forward Positions

One of the more direct use cases for autonomous drones is the resupply from and between forward operating sites (FOS), forward operating bases (FBO), and other forward positions. For example, ammo and other munitions are typically packed and transported on pallets. These pallets can be quickly loaded into Orcas for a resupply operation. Some of the key value points include:

  • Using existing logistics equipment – Pallet lifts, ramps, and forklifts can rapidly load an Orca without needing any other specialized equipment
  • Easy Access – The 1.7m3 bay is accessible from both sides with a low lift requirement
  • Autonomous flight – The Orca’s AI co-pilot allows one pilot to manage up to  50 Orcas from a remote flight control station
  • Flexibility – The small form factor and vertical eVTOL capability allows the Orca to maneuver and land in undeveloped and confined locations
  • Scalability – Deploying multiple Orcas in swarms enables delivery missions to scale to dozens of pallets
  • Pre-programmed – Allows operation in GPS-denied and/or communication-denied environments

The Orca cargo platform provides a capable logistics platform that can augment capabilities while integrating with existing systems.

Beyond Cargo

The size and capacity of Orca’s cargo bay makes it a versatile space that supports use cases beyond simple cargo transportation. For example, by tapping into the onboard power supply, active payloads can be transported and powered for extended periods.  Other potential use cases include:

  • Data & Communications – Orca’s sensors can provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). During missions, it can relay back to remote pilots or ATAK-enabled devices (TACSAT, FMV, Datalink, etc).
  • Launch Platform – The cargo bay can be used to deploy smaller loitering munitions or aircraft, such as the Switchblade.
  • Troop Aid – The Orca can support casualty evaluation, emergency medical assistance, and even provide small arms cover and shelter.

Because they are autonomous, Orcas can operate equally well at night and provide these capabilities at zero risk to the remote flight crew.

More Efficient Operations

The cargo bay is only one of the functional forms of the Orca. The transportation of the Orca is consistent with traditional middle-mile logistics.

  • The entire craft fits and ships in a standard 20’ shipping container.
  • The aircraft can be unloaded and operational in under 30 minutes with a two-person crew.
  • Orcas only require an 8x10m surface for eVTOL operations, which means that 4 Orcas can operate from the same landing zone typically reserved for a manned helicopter.
  • Because they use electric motors for lift, they are also quieter and more reliable.

Moving Military Logistics Forward

Autonomous drones can expand the logistics capabilities of forward positions while minimizing risks to airmen who would otherwise be required to operate aircraft in potentially hostile environments. The military can leverage the billions of dollars of development in the commercial sector to expedite the development of these capabilities. Most importantly, the form factors of cargo drones needs to integrate with existing logistics frameworks to reduce the barriers to entry and maintain operational efficiencies.

The Orca by Traveres Aero is the first autonomous eVTOL drone designed to meet this challenge.

Learn more about the Orca at traverseaero.com

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