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U.S. Army Studies Unmanned Lift, But Not Ready For Flight

Apr. 10, 2012 - 12:25PM   |  
By PAUL McLEARY   |   Comments
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Last year, the U.S. Army’s Logistics Innovation Agency (LIA) closed the books on an almost two-year operational cost-benefit analysis on what it would take to operate a fleet of cargo-hauling UAVs in Afghanistan. While the study — which looked at requirements to resupply seven combat outposts — has given the service something to chew on, it appears that the Army isn’t anywhere close to fielding the capability.

Army officials said they continue to keep close tabs on the Marine Corps’ highly successful cargo UAV program in Afghanistan, in which two unmanned K-MAX helicopters have ferried more than 750,000 pounds of supplies to forward-deployed Marines in Helmand province, but the Army is still analyzing “the long-term effect and implications of acquiring, operating and maintaining a fleet of Cargo UAS in the U.S. Army.”

The information the Marines gather in Afghanistan “will provide LIA with data needed to conduct a lifecycle cost analysis of Cargo UAS,” an LIA spokeswoman wrote in an email.

But the Army does have some ideas as to what it wants to do next.

The LIA said the completed study concluded that “an increase of payload and having the ability to load cargo inside the aircraft vs. sling loaded on the outside would reduce the number of aircraft needed to carry similar loads and would be able to go faster and farther.”

In January, the Army also released a request for information (RfI) to find out what the defense industry thinks it could produce “within 7-10 years from now.” So far, 15 industry teams have responded and have been invited to present their future plans for a cargo UAV capability.

The U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence has already examined the feasibility of converting an existing Army lift helicopter (either a CH-47 Chinook or UH-60 Black Hawk) for use as an optionally piloted vehicle (OPV). While “the study concluded that an OPV could add cargo lift capability to help provide additional resupply options to the commanders in the field,” the LIA writes, “the technologies needed to make the OPV to be able to operate in a war-time environment needs more maturation before it can be brought into field operations.”

The January RfI provides some details as to what baseline capabilities the Army is looking for, including an ability to network with other UAVs, operate in adverse weather conditions and deliver cargo up to 300 nautical miles and carry 5,000 to 8,000 pounds.

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