“Is the U.S. developing a ROBOTIC army?” asked the London Daily Mail, in February article about self-driving trucks in the military (full article here). Lockheed Martin had worked with the Army to test-drive an autonomous convoy through Fort Hood, Texas, in preparation for use in urban combat zones. Perhaps Hollywood creations like “Pacific Rim”, “Real Steel” and the “Transformers” series prompted speculation that the Yanks will soon be sending platoons of metal warriors against our foes. But the self-driving army truck is destined for more mundane tasks, such as delivering supplies, or freeing up the human driver to look out for danger.

Unmanned vehicles have long been used by the military, by NASA, by police bomb squads, in disaster recovery, and for any purpose in which human entry is either dangerous, impractical or impossible. In recent years, both the military and private industry have used this technology on a larger scale, creating self-driving trucks to move heavier loads. Now, the next generation of self-driving military cargo vehicles is taking to the air.

In 2011, an unmanned Kaman K-MAX helicopter made its first cargo drops in Afghanistan, an example of applying self-flying technology to an existing design. According to Lockheed Martin, the slender but powerful K-MAX can lift and deliver a full six thousand pounds of cargo at sea level, and more than four thousand pounds at 15,000 foot density altitude. Its unmanned use has extended to firefighting and commercial logging. The autonomous flight of the K-MAX was a step in the direction of a more versatile vehicle that could travel further once it hit the ground.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) combines helicopter rotors and interchangeable bodies in its Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES) vehicle. A product of the Transformer (TX) program, the ARES has vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) functions.

The ARES can operate as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), reducing the risk of casualties when operated in a war zone. Like the helicopter, the ARES can fly across areas impassable by ground vehicles. DARPA’s ARES VTOL flight module can carry an array of detachable mission modules meant for moving supplies, evacuating casualties, and collecting Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) data. (This is the military; my husband confirms they are fond of alphabet soup names.) In addition, the ARES requires less landing space than a similar size helicopter.

Kevin Renshaw of Lockheed Martin says the ARES prototype will take a test flight in mid-2015. Troops could control the ARES from the ground, using just a tablet or mobile phone app.

An earlier product of the TX program, the AVX flying car, looked like a four-man all-terrain vehicle with helicopter blades. Taking only a minute to convert from road to flight mode, the AVX lacked the versatility of the ARES mission modules, but its wheel configuration was closer to that of a truck, than to a helicopter or light plane. See http://www.gizmag.com/avx-flying-car-darpa-tx/15750/ for a ride that would make for some unforgettable fishing trips.

The Navy is also working on an Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS) program, to design robotic VTOL vehicles. It’s easy to see the advantage of VTOL on the deck of a ship, as well as possible applications of robotics to dangerous sea missions.

The Advanced Tactics Black Knight Transformer comes closest to the concept of a flying truck. This prototype completed road tests in December of 2014, and began flight testing in March.

Weighing 4400 pounds, it has a truck body with four wheels and eight rotors, and can reach a ground speed of seventy miles an hour. Its suspension and a drivetrain are similar to that of an off-road truck, resulting in a softer landing and a smoother ride.

The Black Knight Transformer is made specifically for cargo and casualty use, with the option of unmanned flight to reduce risk to pilots. In its truck form, it’s intended to be brought down someplace away from enemy fire, then driven to a wounded soldier, so that others don’t have to risk carrying him to the vehicle. It can also carry cargo to a landing spot in safe area, then drive to areas inaccessible to ground vehicles.

Ample interior room makes it equally suitable for commercial carrier and firefighting use. The truck body of the Black Knight Transformer can also be switched for a boat hull, an amphibious hull, or helicopter skids.
Since these prototypes are being developed for use in combat zones, engineers are focusing on versatility and unmanned flight. But in the commercial market, maybe the focus will turn toward bigger payloads. Someday, airborne trucks could carry commercial trailer loads of vital tools and supplies to isolated disaster areas, or to remote corners of the earth.