It was a Marine reservist, transport officer Maj. Chris Thobaben, who had the idea to repurpose the scout drones for logistics after seeing too many comrades killed or wounded on supply runs in Iraq.
DROP ZONE COCKATOO, QUANTICO: You can hear it over the roar of the wind and the distant thump of mortar rounds: the high-pitched buzz of miniature drones. I track the incoming quadcopter with my camera until I’m starting to bend backward and I realize it’s hovering directly above me. That’s my cue to move, shortly before a contractor nearby hits the “release” command on his tablet and the drone drops its cargo with a klunk: a metal ammo magazine.
The magazine is empty — no live ammunition for today’s test — but it shows what could be done. All day long here, racking up more than 400 sorties, Marines and contractors are tapping tablets to summon mini-drones from a central “Hive” to drop empty magazines, canteens and MRE ration packs on demand. Instead of the standard 96-hour cycle from requesting resupply to getting it, requests are filled in minutes.
Since the Civil War, the US military has been famous for wholesale logistics, building “iron mountains” of supplies. But now we might be entering an era of retail, robotic resupply. The Marines pioneered the idea of supply drones with the K-MAX unmanned helicopter in Afghanistan, which could carry three tons of cargo, but this iteration is dramatically smaller, delivering just five pounds at a time.
Why the Marines? Admittedly, they’re not alone in this experiment. Most of the drones and the software to control them — called ATAK, Android Tactical Assault Kit— were originally developed by DARPA, the Air Force Research Laboratory, and the Army for reconnaissance. But it was a Marine reservist, transport officer Maj. Chris Thobaben, who had the idea to repurpose the drones for logistics after seeing too many comrades killed or wounded on supply runs in Iraq. It was Marine generals, who’ve made a point of fostering young innovators, who gave Thobaben room to run.