The next time a hurricane strikes Florida or Texas, relief may come from robots in the sky.
The Pentagon wants drones to transport supplies for disaster relief. And not for overseas disasters, but when bad things happen on American soil.
The Defense Logistics Agency recently put out a Request for Information on the feasibility of using drones "to provide disaster relief support on the East and Gulf Coasts of the United States."
That support includes items that victims of natural disasters need most: food and water. The Pentagon wants to conduct an experiment using off-the-shelf drones that can carry "payloads of 250-500 pounds to support warfighters deployed to assist with disaster relief efforts," according to the RFI. "Payloads shall be mechanically affixed to, and released remotely without damage from, the UAS and will typically consist of cases of 16.9-ounce bottled water as well as cases of Meals-Ready-to Eat (MREs) or other similarly packaged Operational Rations end items."
The RFI lists the dimensions of a case of MREs at 16 inches long x 11.5 inches wide x 10 inches high, and weighing 26 pounds. While the RFI does not specify the desired physical dimensions of the drone, the 250- to 500-pound payload requirement suggests an unmanned vehicle that can carry almost 20 cases of MREs or hundreds of bottles of water.
For purposes of the research project, the drone's range should be twenty miles. It must be capable of carrying supplies from ships to land – which would be coordinated with the U.S. Coast Guard—returning to the ships, or hauling supplies from land to land. It must be able to "operate beyond visual line of sight, contain safeguards in order to meet or exceed DoD Cybersecurity standards, and operate in potentially austere weather conditions (wind/fog/heat/cold/light precipitation)." Demonstration flights will be conducted at the U.S. military's Warren Grove Gunnery Range in New Jersey, with the assistance of drone experts from the New Jersey Innovation Institute at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
The concept of a military disaster relief drone makes a lot of sense. When natural disasters destroy roads, rails and airports, it's often the U.S. military that has the capability to bring in aid. In this case, the research focuses on devising a system that can deliver supplies to the East and West Coasts, with the drones likely operating from Coast Guard vessels.
In addition, the Pentagon frequently participates in overseas humanitarian relief efforts such as the Haiti earthquake in 2010. Using drones to haul supplies, instead of wearing out manned helicopters and aircrews on repeated flights into ravaged areas, is more efficient. And if the conditions are hazardous, such as bad weather or armed looters on the ground, better to let the machines take the risk.
What's also interesting is the size of the delivery drone. In 2015, Australian drone company Flirtey made headlines when its helicopter-like machine made the first drone cargo delivery in the United States, bringing medicine from an airfield to a Virginia clinic. The drone that did it weighed just thirteen pounds.
The Pentagon wants an unmanned aircraft that can carry five hundred pounds. That sounds like a machine that is smaller than a missile-armed U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper, which carries almost four thousand pounds (and a cargo much less benign). In 2018, Boeing unveiled an eight-rotor robot copter that can carry five hundred pounds.
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