The US Army is searching for a midsize, unmanned cargo air vehicle that could lighten its soldiers’ loads by taking away the need to carry mission equipment and emergency resupply, according to the army’s Training Doctrine and Command autonomous aerial resupply capability manager.

The service is exploring the need for a joint tactical autonomous resupply system (JTARS), with a requirements effort underway, Lt Col Jeremy Gottshall says. Like the US Marine Corps, the army wants a lighter, more agile expeditionary force that won’t be weighed down by carrying everything on their backs from cold weather gear and sleeping bags to blood and water bottles for emergency resupply. Payload and range rank lower on Gottshall’s requirements for JTARS, with current range targeted between 20 and 100km and an objective payload between 136kg-363kg (300lb-800lb).

Instead, Gottshall is looking for a medium-sized unmanned air vehicle with a high level of autonomy, he told an audience at the annual AUVSI Xponential show in Dallas, Texas.

“We need something that’s responsive and decentralized,” he says. “So that leads us to make some decisions about the size, form factor and capability.”

In the past, the army considered the Lockheed Martin/Kaman K-Max, which the US Marine Corps tested as a heavy lift cargo UAS in Afghanistan. But the USMC did not pick up K-Max as a programme of record, Gottshall says.

While the USMC’s experiment to take convoys off the road remains an admirable pursuit, JTARS will step away from the concept of large UAVs flying from a forward operating base toward a more agile, decentralized capability, Gottshall says. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES) could also fill the cargo resupply shortfall, but like K-Max, would be limited by its size. Ultimately, JTARS will be shaped by the army’s logistics resupply needs.

“ARES is a little bigger and a little more complex and smells like a manned helicopter from a maintenance perspective,” Gottshall says. “It’s got turbine engines, gearboxes, heavy fuel, hydraulics -- pretty soon you’re getting out of the capability to operate and maintain that.”

There may appear to be some overlap between JTARS and the USMC’s requirement for the Marine Air Ground Task Force – Unmanned Expeditionary Capabilities. But the MUX calls for a long range, expeditionary group 5 UAV that can keep pace with the Marines’ MV-22 tiltrotor fleet. The army and USMC could find some commonality between the MUX and Future Vertical Lift capability set 1, which could fill the armed reconnaissance scout role with an unmanned platform.

JTARS might cross paths with the army’s Future Tactical UAS, which also calls for an aerial resupply capability. The first priority for FTUAS will focus on replacing Textron’s RQ-7 Shadow with a runway independent UAS and the army may have to wait on the cargo resupply capability, Gottshall says.

The army is analyzing several capability gaps in its FTUAS initial capabilities document, including survivability, lethality and runway independence, a role once filled by the Kiowa Warrior. While FVL capability set 1 calls for the armed scout capability, that set has not been funded yet, says Col Paul Cravey, army training doctrine and command (TRADOC) capability manager for unmanned aircraft systems.

“We don’t have a funded armed scout but the FVL may fill that role at some point down the line,” he says. “When FVL is done, the UAS will be a complementary asset to that.”