When Ukrainian forces were surrounded in Mariupol in May, helicopter crews flew daring resupply missions into the besieged city. Flying in pairs, the Mi-8 helicopters brought desperately -needed weapons, ammunition, medicine, food and even water to the defenders, allowing them to continue their resistance until the city fell on May 20th. But two helicopters were lost during these missions, driving plans for drones to carry out resupply missions in future conflicts.
U.K. company Animal Dynamics is working on exactly this challenge, developing an autonomous aircraft able to take on one of the most challenging tasks without human assistance.
“The aim is to take people out of harm’s way in resupply missions,” Paul Topping of Animal Dynamics told Forbes.
Known as the Stork STM, the drone emerged from a British Army initiative to automate last mile resupply. Stork has a parafoil wing, a type already used the US Army’s Joint Precision Airdrop System cargo parachutes – with the difference that Stork is powered and is designed to be launched from the ground to make a delivery and return so to can be reused many times.
Stork’s design was driven by discussions with military customers about requirements for load and ranges. Stork can deliver a 200 pounds/ 135 kilos load over a distance of 200km. This enables it to carry the vast majority of standard military items, and from long enough range to keep it well out of the way of enemy fire – this range would have been ideal for the situation in Mariupol. The usual delivery method would be low-level, low-speed parachute drop.
“It can drop a number of items in different locations or everything at once,” says Topping, noting that it can do . “It can be gliding silently to and from the drop site.”
Usually a pilot flies a drone remotely, but operating over such distances would require elaborate and expensive satellite communication. Instead Animal Dynamics have equipped Stork with a high degree of autonomy so it can find its own way to the drop zone and deliver its cargo. Cameras and radar plus onboard intelligence allow it to avoid obstacles on the ground and in the air.
One great advantage is that it does not require any infrastructure. The fabric wing means Stork can be easily transported in the back a vehicle or trailer, and can land and take off from a fifty-meter runway. All it needs is a stretch of paved road, or even a playing field.
While its first role is likely to be in battlefield resupply, Topping says that the Stork is a highly versatile bird and the payload space can be used for other items beside cargo.
“It has an open interface with attachment points for power and data, so you can slot anything into it,” says Topping. “You could put a radar on it, or a 5G transmitter for communications relay.”
In this role the Stork could act as a mobile cellphone tower, providing secure communications over a wide area, aided by a flight endurance of seven hours.
Topping also says that rather than delivering all its cargo to one location it could circle around and act as a ‘flying vending machine’ for troops on the front line.
“We would have a multi-drop STM loitering near frontline squads with meds, radios, NV goggles and other essentials,” says Topping. “A soldier could call an item and it would drop at a location they chose.”
By extension, Stork might also act as a flying mothership for smaller drones or loitering munitions, again delivering them when and where they were most needed..