The Air Force is sick of packing the military's crap. So it's starting to contract it out - to robots.
The Air Force is responsible for lugging around the rest of the military's gear. Pallets are the workhorses that crews use to get the job done. They're flat planks that support cargo and allow it to be tied down, pushed along and generally moved around onto transport vehicles like the C-130.
Moving, stacking, and coordinating all those pallets takes a more than a few foot-tons of back-breaking work. So, a while back, the Air Force proposed building an "intelligent robopallet" that would do let the cargo load itself. The air service recently awarded contracts to two companies - HStar Technologies and Stratom - to start making it happen.
Hstar's attempt at a self-packing luggage system, dubbed "i-Pbot" in Apple-style, would use omnidirectional wheels and hydraulic actuators to allow the pallets to move themselves around wherever they're needed. The system would also feature a wireless sensor network to allow it to communicate with other pallets, to ensure efficient movement.
Stratom's roboloader is based on the standard 463L pallet and will use an automated, guided vehicle to lug around up to five tons. It'll also have a wireless network that allows it to phone home to a central command location and coordinate with its fellow roboloaders.
Pallets aren't the only part of the military cargo and transport worlds getting mechanized as the Pentagon tries to save manpower - and trips to the chiropractor - in its logistical tail.
Cargo-carrying drones are already a reality. In the air, there's the K-MAX helicopter drone which can carry three tons. On the ground, there's BigDog, the robotic pack mule able to haul up to 300 pounds.
The Air Force and Marine Corps already are working getting their own airborne cargo drones, and the Navy wants to build software that would allow the cargo-bots to ferry the wounded by voice command, without the aid of pilots. The Israelis have been working on a robotic ambulance for years.
The military has also bankrolled the development of superstrength exoskeletons that can haul giant loads. Think Sigourney Weaver in Aliens.
HULC, or the Human Universal Load Carrier, is Lockheed's offering in the supersuit category. It allows troops to carry up to 200-pound loads on a march and run up to 7 mph. XOS 2, built by Sarcos and Raytheon and often compared to the Iron Man suit, allows users to bear enormous burdens, too, saving all kinds of back-breaking labor.
Of course, if the pallets loaded themselves, then the superhero suits would be freed up for more heroic duty.
Photo: U.S. Air Force/Flickr