Center for Strategic Communication

Computerized model of the ParaFoil, a propeller-driven drone that could transport up to 3,000 pounds of goods to disaster-stricken areas.

The U.S. military wants to help out during a humanitarian crisis. And it wants paraglider drones and robotic cranes to do it. Allow us to explain.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and defense contractor Raytheon want to turn regular cargo ships into high-tech humanitarian aid platforms equipped with propeller-driven paraglider drones, easily mountable robotic cranes and unmanned amphibious cargo boats.

Raytheon announced a new innovative system on Wednesday called “Tactically Expandable Maritime Platform” (TEMP), a program funded by a Darpa contract awarded in January 2011. The company refused to disclose the dollar amount of the contract.

The goal of this program is to design a system to quickly transform and retro-fit container ships designed only to transport containerized goods so that they will be able to assist in humanitarian missions, freeing up military resources.

Raytheon Darpa TEMP Program Manager, Dennis Hansen, explained to Danger Room how this system would work. After a disaster, Raytheon would load on the ship goods and gear that were already set up at various ports around the world, ideally in less than a day.

Among the devices that would go on the ship, Raytheon has designed unmanned modular cranes to offload and move containers directly on the ship, drones called ParaFoils, and mission modules to house 80 to 100 crew members. Hansen says all this stuff could be loaded on the ship and ready to go in less than 24 hours.

This high-tech gear will allow the ship to remain two to five miles offshore and send in goods either via sea or air. An amphibious platform, called CAT — for “Cargo Amphibious Transport” — could be deployed to deliver entire containers to the shore, even in the absence of a usable port. Hansen estimates that they could transport roughly a million pounds per day. The unmanned aerial vehicles, the ParaFoils, will be able to take off in less than 100 feet and carry 3,000 pounds. Potentially, with several drones, they could deliver 125,000 pounds of goods a day.

It’s the Pentagon’s latest effort to show off its humanitarian commitment. In the past, it’s tried assault ships full of doctors, do-good service groups, or a system that drops thousands of small foam packages containing water into disaster zones.

“With the TEMP System, Raytheon hopes to provide the U.S. Navy with the ability to both address humanitarian aid requirements and keep core naval assets focused on primary warfighting and training missions,” said Joe Biondi, vice president of Advanced Technology for Raytheon’s Integrated Defense System, in a company press release. The important part here is “hopes to provide.” The project is still in a very early stage.

Raytheon has already tested a smaller-scale version of the ParaFoils, and says is now going to build its full-scale version, as well as the crane’s full-scale version. However, Hansen wasn’t able to estimate when TEMP might be ready to be fully deployed or even tested. On paper, TEMP sounds like a great program, but it remains to be seen if creative gizmos like paraglider drones or robotic cranes can really help when disaster hits.