Drone swarms expected to buzz to forefront in latest Pentagon budget
When the Defense Department introduces its budget for 2017 on Tuesday, expect a buzzing noise in the background.
Unmanned drone swarms appear to be one of the big winners in Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s plans for the agency.
The Pentagon chief tipped his hand that drone swarms could get a funding boost in a speech last week, predicting they could be used in “all sorts of ways and in multiple ways.” Organizations including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Office of Naval Research have been investigating the possibility for years, and Carter said that another Pentagon organization, the Strategic Capabilities Office, also is involved. That’s a hint: It focuses on commercial equipment that could be adopted for use by the military quickly.
One project calls for the use of “micro-drones” that are tough enough to be “kicked out the back of a fighter jet moving at Mach 0.9,”″ Carter said in a recent speech at the Economic Club of Washington. That was done in Alaska last year during an operational exercise, he added.
DARPA also has started a Gremlins program to investigate how to “project volleys of low-cost, reusable systems over great distances and retrieve them in midair.” They would be launched in groups from bombers, fighter jets or transport aircraft such as the C-130 and then retrieved by a C-130, DARPA officials said in a news release in August.
Carter also alluded to a project in which unmanned boats work together.
“For the water, they’ve developed self-driving boats which can network together to do all kinds of missions, from fleet defense to close-in surveillance, without putting sailors at risk,” Carter said.
He mentioned that the Navy has adopted technology initially used by NASA to pilot the Mars rover to control unmanned boats. The vessels would protect ships from attacks such as the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, when terrorists drove a small boat loaded with explosives into the ship, killing 17 U.S. sailors.
The secretary also highlighted what he called “the arsenal plane,” which will take an existing plane and turn it “into a flying launchpad for all sorts of different conventional payloads.”
DARPA has investigated how to turn planes into “aircraft carriers in the sky,” as project manager Dan Patt put it in 2014.
Carter didn’t provide much in the way of specifics, but his comments underscore a continued effort in the Pentagon to develop unmanned systems in new ways.
“Swarms will allow the U.S. military to disperse combat power, complicating an enemy’s targeting and overwhelming the enemy through mass,” said Paul Scharre, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, in an analysis released to the media Monday. “These and other new operating concepts are key elements of a continuous process of innovation to adapt to a changing battle space.”
Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration says there are now more registered drone operators in the United States than there are registered manned aircraft.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told a legal forum on Monday that the agency passed the milestone last week when it topped 325,000 registered drone owners. There are 320,000 registered manned aircraft.
Huerta said the number of small unmanned aircraft is even larger because drone operators often own more than one drone.
FAA officials launched a drone registration program just before Christmas, saying it would help them track down operators who violate regulations and also help to create a culture of accountability.
Huerta said the speed with which registration has taken off is proof that government and industry can work together.