The Marines are getting supersized drones for battlefield resupply

On April 11, the Department of Defense announced that it was allocating just over $8 million for 21 new delivery drones. These flying machines, officially called the TRV-150C Tactical Resupply Unmanned Aircraft Systems, are made by Survice Engineering in partnership with Malloy Aeronautics. 

The TRV-150C is a four-limbed drone that looks like a quadcopter on stilts. Its tall landing legs allow it to take off with a load of up to 150 pounds of cargo slung underneath. The drone’s four limbs each mount two rotors, making the vehicle more of an octocopter than a quadcopter. 

The TRV drone family also represents the successful evolution of a long-running drone development program, one that a decade ago promised hoverbikes for humans and today is instead delivering uncrewed delivery drones.

The contract award is through the Navy and Marine Corps Small Tactical Unmanned Aircraft Systems program office, which is focused on ensuring the people doing the actual fighting on the edge of combat or action get the exact robotic assistance they need. For Marines, this idea has been put into practice and not just theorized, with an exercise involving drone resupply taking place at Quantico, Virginia, at the end of March.

The Tactical Resupply Unmanned Aircraft System (TRUAS), as the TRV-150C is referred to in use, “is designed to provide rapid and assured, highly automated aerial distribution to small units operating in contested environments; thereby enabling flexible and rapid emergency resupply, routine distribution, and a constant push and pull of material in order to ensure a constant state of supply availability,” said Master Sergeant Chris Genualdi in a release about the event. Genualdi already works in the field of airborne and air delivery, so the delivery drone became an additional tool to meet familiar problems.

Malloy Aeronautics boasts that the drone has a range of over 43 miles; in the Marines’ summary from Quantico, the drone is given a range of 9 miles for resupply missions. Both numbers can be accurate: Survice gives the unencumbered range of the TRV-150 at 45 miles, while carrying 150 pounds of cargo that range is reduced to 8 miles. 

With a speed of about 67 mph and a flight process that is largely automated, the TRV-150C is a tool that can get meaningful quantities of vital supplies where they are needed, when they are needed. Malloy also boasts that drones in the TRV-150 family have batteries that can be easily swapped, allowing for greater operational tempo as the drones themselves do not have to wait for a recharge before being sent on their next mission.

These delivery drones use “waypoint navigation for mission planning, which uses programmed coordinates to direct the aircraft’s flight pattern,” the Marines said in a release, with Genualdi noting “that the simplicity of operating the TRUAS is such that a Marine with no experience with unmanned aircraft systems can be trained to operate and conduct field level maintenance on it in just five training days.”

Reducing the complexity of the drone to essentially a flying cart that can autonomously deliver gear where needed is huge. The kinds of supplies needed in battle are all straightforward—vital tools like more bullets, more meals, or even more blood and medical equipment—so attempts at life-saving can be made even if it’s unsafe for the soldiers to move towards friendly lines for more elaborate care.

Getting the drone down to just a functional delivery vehicle comes after years of work. In 2014, Malloy debuted a video of a reduced scale hoverbike designed for a human to ride on, using four rotors and a rectangular body. En route to becoming the basis for the delivery drone seen today, the hoverbike was explored by the US Army as a novel way to fly scouts around. This scout ultimately moved to become a resupply tool, which the Army tested in January 2017.

In 2020, the US Navy held a competition for a range of delivery drones at the Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona. The entry by Malloy and Survice came in first place, and cemented the TRV series as the drones to watch for battlefield delivery. In 2021, British forces used TRV drones in an exercise, with the drones tasked with delivering blood to the wounded. 

“This award represents a success story in the transition of technology from U.S. research laboratories into the hands of our warfighters,” said Mark Butkiewicz, a vice president at SURVICE Engineering, in a release. “We started with an established and proven product from Malloy Aeronautics and integrated the necessary tech to provide additional tactical functionality for the US warfighter. We then worked with research labs to conduct field experiments with warfighters to refine the use of autonomous unmanned multirotor drones to augment logistical operations at the forward most edge of the battlefield.”

The 21 drones awarded by the initial contract will provide a better start, alongside the drones already used for training, in teaching the Marines how to rely on robots doing resupply missions in combat. Genualdi expects the Marines to create a special specialty to support the use of drones, with commanders dispatching members to learn how to work alongside the drone.

The drones could also see life as exportation and rescue tools, flying through small gaps in trees, buildings, and rubble in order to get people the aid they need. In both peace and wartime uses, the drone’s merit is its ability to get cargo where it is needed without putting additional humans at risk of catching a bullet.