Between their remote locations and the ever present threat of ambush (or worse yet, IED), it's simply getting too dangerous to deliver the average 100,000 lbs of supplies that far-flung American forward combat bases require each week. Air drops by cargo plane or helicopter are one option, but DARPA researchers may already have a better solution: shape-shifting, cargo-carrying UAVs.
DARPA, in collaboration with Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, has been developing these prototype vehicles since 2009 through its Transformer (TX) program as a means of augmenting existing delivery methods.
"Many missions require dedicated vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) assets, but most ground units don't have their own helicopters," Ashish Bagai, DARPA program manager, said in a press statement. "ARES would make organic and versatile VTOL capability available to many more individual units. Our goal is to provide flexible, terrain-independent transportation that avoids ground-based threats, in turn supporting expedited, cost-effective operations and improving the likelihood of mission success."
Late last year, DARPA settled on the Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES) concept as the program's winning design and the basis for future Transformer platforms. The ARES' unique modular design will allow it to perform the wide variety of roles required. Its VTOL flight module would act as a standalone UAV—either remotely controlled by a ground unit's tablet or smart phone, or in future iterations, capable of semi-autonomous flight—with its own power, control, and propulsion systems. A pair of ducted fans will provide vertical lift and convert to provide forward thrust, allowing the ARES to lift up to 3,000 lbs of cargo and land in spots half the size of traditional helicopter landing pads.
What that cargo is will depend on the kind of module the ARES is carrying. DARPA researchers hope to develop a number of mission-specific modules—cargo containers, casualty extraction (similar to this Israeli system), and reconnaissance payloads—that could be quickly swapped out for one another.
The importance of such a system can't be understated. 1,389 American servicemen have lost their lives due to roadside bombs since 2001 in Afghanistan alone. Any system that can reduce those casualty rates can't come soon enough. [DARPA via Mashable]