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Forget Amazon's drones. Give the Marines some credit. They’ve been doing it for years.

By Steve Geary | 12/08/2013 | 8:09 AM

Over the course of the past week Amazon’s drone delivery announcement has gotten a ton of press.

I'm baffled by the buzz.  Here’s some commentary from the New York Times (click here for the full article):

Hard to believe, but there was once a time when the visionaries worked for the government. Rebuilding a ruined Europe, putting a man on the moon, ending poverty, connecting the American interior with highways — these were immense tasks undertaken, and often achieved, by bureaucrats . . . The wild dreamers these days work for technology companies.

The column forgets to mention that the bureaucrats gave us the internet and the semiconductor, but that would undercut his story.  The by-line is from San Francisco, so I’m thinking that there is more than a little hometown bias taking place.  

The article continues:

And now Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, says he is planning to take what looks like a barbecue grill, attach eight propellers and a basket to it and use it to deliver small items to people’s houses. He sketched a vision where no one would ever have to get off a hammock for a resupply of Pringles or Milk Duds.  Package delivery by drone is a loopy idea, far-fetched and the subject of instant mockery on Twitter — but it is hard to deny its audacity.

Audacity?  Vision?  How about old news?  (See “Military tests unmanned helicopters to reduce supply risks,” DC Velocity, September 30, 2010.)

First of all, drone technology itself didn’t come from those “wild dreamers” in the Valley.  Drone technology itself comes from the world of the military, from the Defense Industrial Base, not from a bunch of millennials playing on iPADs and eating pizza in Palo Alto.

You want audacity?  Go talk to a Marine.

The Marines have flown unmanned cargo helicopters for the past year and a half in Afghanistan, completing about 1,300 missions.  The Marine’s K-MAX unmanned helicopter isn’t about resupply of Pringles or Milk Duds.  It flies resupply missions to combat outposts in Southwest Afghanistan, and it does it to keep our sons and daughters out of harm’s way.

The thing must work, because in these days of budget crunch both the Marines and the Army are talking to Congress, trying to get money appropriated for more.

This is not some hobby shop toy like you see in the Amazon press releases.  The Marine Corps version of a delivery drone can carry up to 6,000 pounds of cargo.  In one day, the aircraft flew 30,000 pounds of cargo in the course of six missions.  I’m told it has a range of about five hundred miles, which means that it could do a round trip delivery from Boston to New York City.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  The Marines didn’t do this by themselves.  A partnership of two aerospace and defense companies actually delivered the technology, Lockheed Martin and K-MAX.  Still, these are not the technology companies that the New Times was writing about.

Give credit where credit is due.  The drivers of the vision – and the people signing the checks to fund the innovation –were from the United States Marine Corps, not a bunch of venture capitalists. There are some truly creative, innovative, and audacious people in the Defense Industrial Base.  Sometimes we’d all be well-served to look there for good ideas.

Amazon is talking about drones for delivery.  The Marines are already doing it.

Semper Fi.



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About Mike Rudolph

Mike Rudolph

Mike Rudolph is a recently retired Marine Colonel with over 30 years of operational experience, proven leadership, and management success in the logistics and supply chain management fields. He is an executive consultant with ROSE Solutions and the Supply Chain Visions family of companies - consultancies that work throughout the government sector. Mike led the Marine Corps Supply Chain and Life Cycle Management Center at Marine Corps Logistics Command - responsible for supply chain and life cycle management of all ground weapon systems, equipment, and reparable components, the depot maintenance program, and equipment prepositioning program. During 2004-2008, he served two tours of duty in Anbar Province, Iraq as the G-4 for Multi-National Force – West, supporting all combat operations and coalition efforts to revitalize Iraqi economic development and stability. Mike's efforts were recognized with the Bronze Star for his first tour and the Legion of Merit for his second. He was widely recognized as a visionary and innovator in the Marine Corps logistics community.


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