More than just Predators and Hellfires, the US military is developing drone programs that are changing the future of defense
In early January, the US military succeeded in capturing headlines and imaginations when they provided an inside look at their latest advances in drone technology. In the midst of the preparations for the battle of Mosul, 60 Minutes ran a story about the Perdix drone program that represents the next stage of integration into the armed forces. In the test that was carried out in October of last year, 103 of the Perdix microdrones were jettisoned mid-flight by three F/A-18 Super Hornets, engaging in an aerial exercise.
Already in their 6th generation, these small drones with their wingspan under a foot across work together as perhaps the ultimate Internet of Things, communicating as a swarm to carry out their mission. Unlike the drones that have come to prominence over the past 15 years in the wars with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, controlled by pilots sitting on bases like Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota, these little machines are operated through Artificial Intelligence.
By moving away from the human-controlled model, they allow these microdrones far more autonomy to respond far faster to new situations and needs.
“Due to the complex nature of combat, Perdix are not pre-programmed synchronized individuals, they are a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature,” said Strategic Capabilities Office Director William Roper whose organization played a role in developing the project alongside the Department of Defense (DoD) and Naval Air Systems Command. “Because every Perdix communicates and collaborates with every other Perdix, the swarm has no leader and can gracefully adapt to drones entering or exiting the team.”
As opposed to their larger cousin, the $15 million Predator drone, the Perdix is fairly cheap and is undergoing a fairly rapid development cycle. That makes it perhaps more similar to a consumer-type device than a classical military one. This expendability could also expand their use in operations, reaching out to more units and for more missions.
Zooming out a bit, there appears to be a move on the part of the DoD to explore smaller, cheaper drones that can be integrated with units. The focus of these drones appears to be on acting as a force multiplier, giving the military valuable information beyond their current capacity.
“Unmanned vehicles, like many other capabilities in the DoD, are viewed as force multipliers,” says LTC Roger M. Cabiness II from the Office of the Secretary of Defense-Public Affairs at the DoD. “These types of vehicles, and the underlying technology are a resource to enhance support to service members by improving the information used to make decisions to ultimately improve effects on the battlefield.”
Beyond the Perdix project, there are a number of other small drone initiatives being spearheaded by the military that are worth keeping an eye on.
1. PARC: Persistent Aerial Reconnaissance and Communications
PARC is a tethered, small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) developed by CyPhy capable of staying airborne for several days LTC Cabiness tells Geektime. Once in the air, the PARC drone acts as its name describes, providing images from its perch in the sky and helping to give the team better reception for communications. Carrying infrared cameras or similar sensors, LTC Cabiness explains that PARC uses a microfilament line to carry power up to the UAV and HD imagery data down to the operator.
This kind of drone essentially gives soldiers in the field the advantage of gaining a kind of high ground no matter where they are. It is easy to see how this tool will quickly find its way onto forward operating bases or in convoys.
Developed through the sponsorship of the Rapid Reaction Technology Office and the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office, LTC Cabiness explains to Geektime that the InstantEye provides tactical operators with enhanced situational awareness and instantaneous overhead video on demand.
Small and weighing only 200 grams, LTC Cabiness says that the InstantEye can be stowed compactly in a small canister and quickly unfolded and deployed when needed, streaming video back to the controller. This is basically the military’s version of a standard microdrone that gives special forces soldiers the ability to peek in through windows, over walls, and get around other obstructions in order to get a better intelligence picture of their situation.
3. AWESUM: Advanced Weapons Enhanced by Submarine UAS against Mobile targets
How often do you have a piece of military technology with a kick-ass name like AWESUM?
This navy drone was developed through the sponsorship of the Joint Capability Technology Demonstration (JCTD) Program to help give submarine sailors a wider picture outside of what they can see through the periscope and sonar.
Shot out of the sub’s countermeasures launchers, this three-pound, three-inch unmanned aerial system (UAS) gives the crew a bird’s eye view to assist in tasks like targeting and assessing damage following combat.
For years now, submarines have acted as platforms for underwater vehicles and personnel like SEALs. With this drone, they gain an eye in the sky. Add to this the fact that the AWESUM’s control and sensor feeds are integrated directly into the combat control system, and they gain a real edge in battle. According to LTC Cabiness, the technology for this project has already made its debut onto US subs, being first introduced in November 2016.
Is the future of drones in the US military coming from the commercial market
One of the details that popped out in their January statement on the tests was the fact that these drones were built using totally commercial materials.
The Perdix project came out of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) lab and not the legendary DARPA. These days many of the military’s advancements in robotics seem to be coming out of the Cambridge area, with Boston Dynamics establishing itself as one of the big names pumping out bots that catch headlines.
While their Big Dog robot that was aimed at carrying heavy loads for troops in the field was rejected by the Marines for being really, really noisy, their latest invention series of devices are getting faster, rolling and jumping into people’s nightmares.
It is unclear whether some of these fast moving, bi-ped bots will have military uses, but once they solve some of the major kinks for civilian use, they could easily move over some of the basic concepts.
Once that happens, it might not be too long until we need to take out Robot Insurance from great providers like Old Glory.
In the statement released by the DoD after the Perdix test was publicized, they included an interesting tidbit: the researchers utilized a fast development model of issuing constant updates, a system that is far closer to that of a lean startup than traditional defense programs.
The fact they are made out of publicly available parts shows how fast the private sector is pushing forward in the sector, in many instances perhaps prepared to overtake the military in the development of drone technology.
At this point, it may be worth asking whether the next period of innovation will increasingly come from the private sector. I still remember back to 2004 when the civilian GPS was far more accurate than what we had in the IDF’s infantry units. Now Waze, Google Maps, and Moovit completely blow that older technology out of the water.
Drones like the Mavic coming out of DJI are breaking boundaries of what are possible in the civilian market. Even Islamic State fighters in Mosul are using commercially bought drones for intelligence gathering and aerial bombings, gaining low-level yet surprisingly effective air capability that would not have been possible five or ten years ago.
While many of these advancements are both scary and exciting, we shouldn’t expect to see swarms of drones buzzing through the air anytime soon. The DoD is currently looking for a manufacturer that can produce 1,000 units of the Perdix drones a year and has stated that they are looking to improve on the drone for the “Gen 7” version.
Unlike commercial drones that are used for fun or maybe some light work purposes, military grade drones need to prove that they are reliable and can take some punishment from the bumps of the field. Then there are additional considerations about the manufacturers, who we can assume the DoD would prefer were not based in China where there are likely security concerns from companies like DJI.
One company that has caught my eye in developing ground-based robots is Tel Aviv’s Roboteam with their product line of three main bots, the MTGR, Iris, and the heavy Probot.
As robots and automation et large continue to make their way into our lives, we can plan to see plenty more of these innovations in the military space. Some like the PARC may seem totally uncontroversial in their purpose, essentially acting as floating cameras that would otherwise have been mounted on blimps. However, the combination of robotics with AI in a military context may put others on edge. Not that anyone is expecting a rise of the bots anytime soon a la Bender Bending Rodriguez-style, but the roll out of this technology needs to done with a lot of transparency and clear guidelines on their use.