Special Operations Chiefs Want Smaller Drones

(U.S. Army photo)(U.S. Army photo)

For operators, the next big thing in drone technology may be pretty small.

At a recent panel discussion between the chiefs of the four military services’ special operations commands, the Navy and Marine Corps commanders said they had their eye on unmanned aircraft systems with smaller, lighter frames and more compact payloads.

“We’re starting to look a lot closer at UAS payloads,” Maj. Gen. Joseph Osterman, commanding general of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, said last week at the National Defense Industrial Association special operations forces/low-intensity conflict symposium.

“What I’m really interested in is, how do I operate a smaller and smaller platform with longer duration endurance and higher capability and capacity within the payload,” he said. “I’m very interested in how that payload changes.”

Osterman added he was also interested in interchangeable payloads to be used with a variety of SOF platforms.

“From my perspective, we get awfully wrapped around the axle about platforms within the greater discussion about UAS,” he said. “But the UASs are just a truck that’s out there.”

Marine Corps special operations has historically made great use of small hand-launched drone platforms, such as the RQ-11B Raven at 4.7 pounds, and the RQ-20A Puma, 13 pounds. National Defense Magazine wrote in 2011 that MARSOC, with a force of just a few thousand Marines, received a quarter of the Marine Corps’ entire fleet of small UASs.

Osterman said he was essentially the program manager for small UASs within the Marine Corps.

“The more capability I can throw to those from a hand-launched perspective, frankly, the easier it is to use and the harder it is for the enemy to get focused on it,” he said.

The commander of Naval Special Warfare Command, Rear Adm. Brian Losey, said the Navy had seen great technological and capability improvements in the service life of its ScanEagle surveillance drone, which was introduced in 2005. But, he said, the service was already “shooting behind the target” when it came to ScanEagle’s capabilities.

“The next level is going to be smaller and more controllable,” he said. “So now you’re talking smaller … almost hobbyist quadcopter-type platforms that are out there.”

Also important, Losey said, was the ability to use systems in collaboration might not have with partner nations who might now have the capacity to use technologically complex or hard-to-maintain platforms.

“How do I convert fairly cheap systems, tactical systems or operational capabilities, how do I translate that into partner capabilities,” he said.

Losey invoked Moore’s Law, the notion that the processing capability and capacity of technology doubles every two years.

“Sensor density capacity, what those sensors can do is all driving toward the small end of the spectrum,” he said. “I will tell you I think things are moving to the small end of the spectrum for our business.”

Losey added, “Often we find ourselves on the ground in small four-to-six man elements, and we’re trying to produce some pretty outsized results out of a small group of people. So we need technology that we can bring in that’s not threatening to the environment that provides value.”

About the Author

Hope Hodge Seck
Hope Hodge Seck is a reporter at Military.com. She can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.
  • blight_

    Hooray, more unrealistic demands to be readily pounced upon by Lockheed Martin.

    “Lighter drones…more payload too! On it!”

  • Patriot on a String

    Being a former Grunt but now in the IT and Communications field I can honestly say that an iPhone 4 is still higher tech than current UAS platforms… The problem with our current Military is that they do not use DARPA like the Great Generation did that forced competing private companies to the table in what was called “Think Tanks” and told them “Here is a problem, and you have 24 hours to have a working solution.” They were expected to share information… American Companies to make America strong… Why do you think Chysler was assembling Ford designed trucks and Willy’s Ford Jeeps…. Or they all were building parts for P-51 Mustangs…. A simple cell configured card could make a smaller more efficient more diverse onboard controller… Yeah DARPA is working on the ‘Dragon Fly” as we speak… Hell one Smart Artillery Round could drop a thousand fake smart gravel across an area and have all the telemetry you want… Then our own EPA would be all over them for litter and pollution… So a hand sized body with the Cell Tech that could have adaptable port tech to change sensors arrays out… There’s your payload changes…

    • blight_

      There’s a strong disincentive to share information. Take Bantam, whose design was “shared” with other car companies, who then squeezed Bantam out. First it was Willys, then Ford.

      As an aside, instead of DARPA you may be thinking of OSR&D and NDRC. I don’t think ARPA/DARPA ever had the power the former two agencies did.

  • Fatman

    There are already a number of small drones, some pocket sized that can do the job requested. My question is how much of this is a real need and how much is the SpecOps boys wanting more toys to play with?

    • Still fit

      Fatman, As a long ago former spec ops boy I take exception to your “wanting more toys” disparaging comment; it’s obvious your lack of military experience.

  • blight_

    ““From my perspective, we get awfully wrapped around the axle about platforms within the greater discussion about UAS,” he said. “But the UASs are just a truck that’s out there.””

    True. But at the moment the payloads we think of are ISR (sensors), and now a shift towards carrying offensive payloads. What things do they want to carry up in a drone? That question also needs to be answered, and perhaps may be more important than talking about the platforms, which as he notes are “just a truck”.

  • DucFanDan

    Yes please, more focus on payloads. Smaller, lighter, higher “capability density”. We need more capability out of smaller and lighter packages. Mission managers want more capabilities out of UAS, and right now the only way to add capability is for the UAS to grow… sometimes significantly. ScanEagle has suffered greatly from bloat, because every time a new contract comes up there are additional demands on it. Recent versions are significantly heftier than what it started out as. Let’s get back to thinking about the platform as the “truck”. If you want to stuff more payload capability into it, you need to work on packaging the payloads. Demanding more capabilities without putting pressure on the payload manufacturers can only be accommodated one way: bigger flying machines. That’s not what any of us want.

    • blight_

      It requires some careful thought as to what you want your UAV’s to carry up. If you simply add things on top of other things, it will lead to more weight and require a larger system. If you iterate the technology base of your payloads, and reap the benefits of miniaturization, it may lead to smaller payloads of similar capability. And if you want to add more stuff, you throw some weight back on but hopefully keep it within limits.

      If bloat is allowed to happen, it is because someone started prioritizing immediate availability which means optimization of payload is tossed aside in favor of getting a bigger UAV; which is usually already being worked on and is ready to go. Ideally we would rush the immediate need device via prototype programs (Big Safari, et al) and let the optimized product work its way through the system…

    • blight_

      Part of the problem is we don’t have standard payloads. Drone vendor essentially builds each individually, without regard to interchangeability, and changing them out is usually a bear, and the exclusive purview of the drone manufacturer. There is no “truck” when the payload packages can’t really be changed.

  • Howard young

    Fatma, i take it you never faced an enemy in your life. I love it when armchair soldiers complain when a few dollars are spent saving american lives. HOW DO YOU LIKE YOUR FREEDOM? Remember our MIA’s and KIS’s.

    • blight_

      His point stands. The services don’t sound too sure yet what they want, especially when articulated in such general terms. Vague ideas led to the LCS, for example.

  • Hatari

    Ughhh…”capacity within payload”?! This is EXACTLY where r/d and warfighter miscommunication starts (and never ends).

    OK, first of all, YOU (soldier) don’t figure out anything in terms of next gen MAVs, their AI figures out and tells YOU how to employ or deploy your other assets. Until miniaturization reaches a point where u can kinetically arm an mav stick to neuralnet isr and swarmlogic based automated deployment efficiency improvement ideas…cognitive “reach forward” will only hurt you. so…just stop thinking… leave it to the pros ;-)

    • blight_

      Swarm AI is still on the drawing board, and is far from mature/ubiquitous.

      I don’t think the Marines need swarms just yet. But more importantly they haven’t expressed articulate, specific needs in the drone space. Take amphibious entry…they can articulate on that. But drones? Certainly doesn’t sound like it, at least from the snippets above.

  • Patriot on a String

    There is the largest issue of Data Link interface between devices, systems, and services. The Air Force still has this issue and has the temporary fix of a retro-fit F-15 with a communications telemetry pod… The DOD wants all data coming in to be received and processed across the services… Problem… Defense Contractors… This puts life and limb on the line… Until, this issue and forcing these contractors to work together instead of creating a new contract to create Data Linking are resolved and it being made clear anything Government money was spent on is Government Property not the companies, then there will exist no swarm logic capable system.. Even now we have cross interference and accidental jamming in communications from having too many different systems… Killed by Friendly fire on this too…

  • justsaying

    Just a reader but it seems to me a swarm of insect sized drones one with a camera another drone had GPS another_a small explosive charge Say they cost $100 a piece one cruise missile costs 1.5 million You get a swarm of 15000_drones who could do a lot more damage in a populated city. With no civilian death and no putting solders in harms way. Seems a no brainer. Who ever gets small first ,wins.How about a large swarm, in the 100s of millions they could be prepositioned without anybody noticing. Then they swarm and kill everything. I bet if it would be easier then building a nuclear bomb , but be more effective. _