Unmanned Logistics – Last Mile or First Mile

By Think Defence

The MoD has an ambitious programme through the DSTL Defence and Security Accelerator (Accelerator) for Autonomous Last Mile Resupply.

The introduction describes the requirement;

The ‘last mile resupply’ involves the delivery of combat supplies from the forward-most location (such as a physical base or a logistics/infantry vehicle) to personnel engaged in combat operations. Although relatively small in distance, these resupply activities are challenging as they are in an environment that is typically hostile, complex and contested. These activities need to quickly and efficiently deliver vital supplies in order to maintain operational tempo and enable successful mission outcomes. It’s important to note the last mile is a concept, not a fixed distance, and may be up to 30km in some scenarios.

It then defines the aims;

  • reduce the demand on existing platforms and infrastructure
  • reduce the risk and burden on military personnel during last mile resupply
  • increase the efficiency of the last mile logistic resupply operations with pace and accuracy
  • provide an assured resupply capability for forward military users to enable more agile operations in complex environments

These are demanding and stretching objectives, the ‘last mile’ is a complex and unpredictable environment so any solutions will necessarily have to demonstrate a high degree of technical ambition.

Logistics 1

The MoD has funded this so far to £3 million, with more to come.

Completely unrelated, and one might observe, completely unconnected, is an £8.1 million investment by the Department for Transport and Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles into commercial vehicle ‘platooning’ on UK roads. Platooning is not a particularly new concept but it is demonstrably much less demanding that full autonomy. A manned lead vehicle is connected wirelessly to the following vehicles with steering, braking and acceleration in sync. In a straight line, on a fully consistent road surface, this is relatively simple.  Going around a roundabout or negotiating a busy single lane road, entirely another.

The trials will be carried out by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), DAF Trucks, Ricardo and DHL. The focus for the trial is to investigate the concept as a means of increasing safety and reducing fuel consumption but there is an obvious implication for drivers, three trucks will need one driver.

Platooning

One might argue for STRIKE, a concept that envisages travelling long distances, the demand on drivers, driver hours and vehicles will be such that the last mile is probably the lesser of the challenges. In order to maximise human efficiency, the MoD can look at the extremely stretching approach of autonomy, or dial down the ambition a notch and investigate platooning as one means of adequately addressing the logistics challenges of STRIKE. Especially in Europe, long road marches will make use of high quality roads.

One might also ask why the MoD is not involved, even as an observer, with the TRL study, maybe it is, but the press output so far omits any mention.

In very simplistic terms, in a typical three vehicle platoon, one RLC driver instead of three provides an obvious efficiency saving but more pertinently, for a long road march, three RLC drivers can operate as a team to keep the vehicle on the road much longer (two resting, one leading the front vehicle). Of course, the reality may be somewhat different, but there is clear potential here.

Of course, the MoD should encourage industry to work on demanding requirements as a means of fostering innovation but it should also work with other departments to leverage publicly funded research.

Platooning technology in first mile logistics might well be more achievable and deliver more tangible benefits than last mile autonomy.

In aiming lower, the MoD might actually reach higher.

4 comments

  1. Love this concept, drones have fantastic capability in a war zone, for small supplies as bag carriers, or picking up equipment like troop carrying electric scooters, better than a yomp, caribiners and bags are easily carried. Clip and away. Trial goes ok I trust.

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    1. SO is spot on. Many discussions of tethering a number of vehicles to a lead manned vehicle focus on the driving only. The crew of the load carrier (usually 2 personnel) does more than drive – they provide top cover in transit, guard the location when the vehicle stops, camouflages the vehicle when halted, loads and secures the payload, assesses the “atmospherics” encountered on the route, conducts low level maintenance etc etc.

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