Soldiers fighting at the front line could be resupplied by Amazon-style delivery drones under new schemes being considered by the Ministry of Defence.
The MOD is offering defence firms and inventors millions of pounds in a competition for ideas of how to use the growing field of unmanned vehicle technology to get supplies up to the front.
Defence chiefs want to trade on recent advances by consumer firms like Amazon to find quicker, cheaper and safer ways of getting kit into dangerous frontline combat zones.
The online retail giant believes it can revolutionise the delivery business with its own fleet of drones dropping off purchases to a customer’s door and recently said it had delivered its first package in the UK.
Defence engineers are also considering building convoys of self-driving lorries, guarded by unmanned or remote control armed vehicles, as part of any future military logistics chain.
As part of the initiative, the MOD has now announced a £3m competition for suggestions for an “autonomous last mile resupply system”.
Solutions would need to be get equipment across difficult terrain, through bad weather, from just behind the front line to right up to where troops are fighting, according to the competition announcement.
The competition announcement says: “To reduce the risk to troops and improve efficiency, the UK aims to develop autonomous systems for unmanned delivery of combat supplies, drawing on the rapid progress of the private sector in the development of delivery drones and automated deliveries.”
Engineers have two months to offer ideas, with the best ones winning funding to explore them further.
Harriet Baldwin, minister for defence procurement, said the MOD wanted to “use the latest technology to keep our personnel safe”.
She said: “We’re challenging industry and academia to work with us to design ground-breaking autonomous systems that will get supplies to the front line.”
Amazon in December claimed to have carried out its first UK drone delivery from a depot in Cambridge.
However at present the company’s fleet of drones can only carry a payload of around 5lb and must have good, clear weather to fly.
The safety of drones has also come under the spotlight after reports of near-misses between them and conventional aircraft around airports.
Liz Quintana, senior research fellow for futures and technology at the Royal United Services Institute, said creating unmanned vehicles was a key focus for militaries and cargo drones would be “slightly less controversial than using armed drones”.
She said: “It’s looking to a lot of what’s going on in the private sector and seeing what might be possible.”
America tested an unmanned helicopter in Afghanistan in 2012, using it to ferry rations to far-flung forward operating bases around Helmand province.
The US Army also earlier this year unveiled a logistics “hover bike”, called the joint tactical aerial resupply vehicle. The US Army’s research laboratory says it wants the aircraft to carry a load of 800lb to a range of 125 miles.
Ms Quintana said military use of cargo drones mirrored their growing use in the private sector.
The Swiss postal service last month said it hoped to use flying drones to deliver medical supplies to hospitals by next year. Aid agencies and charities are also exploring using them to deliver aid.
Peter Stockel, who is leading the competiton for the MoD, said: "We are particularly keen to reach out and encourage organisations that might not have worked with the defence and security sector before, such as those developing commercial driverless vehicles, drone delivery services and robotic agriculture, to get involved with the challenge and help us rapidly advance the way we deliver tactical military logistics.”