Autonomous Tactical Drones May Soon Support Marines

Marines with Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron (VMU) 1 rolls the RQ-7Bv2 Shadow, an unmanned aerial system, unto the runway at Cannon Air Defense Complex in Yuma, Ariz., March 25. Marine Wing Support Squadron (MWSS) 371 and MWSS-274 supported VMU-1 by building a runway in preparation for the Shadow’s first flight at the site. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Harley Robinson/Released)

U.S. Marines could soon get guardian angels: a squadron of small autonomous drones constantly overhead, providing full surveillance and instant airstrikes on demand. And it could happen sooner than you think.

The proposal for “organic tactical unmanned aircraft to support ground forces” is one of several outlined in the Defense Science Board’s mammoth Summer Study on Autonomy, and the key word is “autonomy.”  These drones will possess a high level of distributed artificial intelligence. Unlike current models like the MQ-9 Reaper, they will not be piloted from the ground but will fly themselves, forming a self-organizing squadron that automatically assigns roles to different aircraft based on mission requirements. The squad on the ground will not need a dedicated drone operator; the whole aim of autonomy is not to add to their workload. Control will be via tablet or smartphone, or an earbud with an audio link “similar to the Apple Siri app.”

Under this arrangement, all the data processing is done onboard the drones. Rather than sending a constant stream of video footage requiring a full-time operator to review and interpret, the drones pick out items of interest and provide “immediate alerts and battlefield intelligence (to threatened squads).”  The drones will also carry out Blue Force tracking so they can tell which individuals on the ground are friendly and which may be hostiles.

Autonomy means the drones do not need to be in constant communication with the operator or each other, and can work where communications are jammed or intermittent. In fact, the report says that communications “are required only when lethal force is a factor.” In other words, the drones only need a human in the loop to give the order to fire weapons. Apart from that they do everything themselves.

The drone swarm — the military prefer the term “squadron” — will initially comprise between 10 and 40 aircraft. These will be of several different types: Some will carry sensors (visual, thermal, or even acoustic are suggested), some will have jamming or communications payloads, others will carry weapons.

The current RQ-11 Raven tactical drone has an endurance of about 90 minutes; the new drones will stay in the air for 12 hours at a time. The squadron would be launched at the start of a mission and would remain overhead until it was completed. In practice, additional drones could be launched to join the squadron as the original members run low on juice, so it would be possible to maintain a continuous presence 24-7 if need be.  According to the report, a three-person ground crew should be enough to launch, recover, refuel and re-arm the drones.

(Defense Department illustration)

(Defense Department illustration)

The endurance, and the payload, between two and 12 kilos, suggest a drone similar in size to the Boeing Scan Eagles currently flown by the Navy which have a 10-foot wingspan.

That may not sound like much of a weapons load, but the AeroVironment Switchblade loitering munition (or kamikaze drone, if you prefer) has a warhead of less than half a kilo and has proven highly effective. Precision may be more important then weight. The Navy is known to be working on a range of precision micro-munitions with laser or GPS guidance. Raytheon Co. has already demonstrated its laser-guided Pike missile weighing less than a kilo which can hit precision targets from a mile away.

The report emphasizes that the swarm should be omnipresent and able to respond instantly without the usual delay associated with calling up air support. In fact, the first the squad members may know about a threat is when the drones alert them to its presence and request permission to engage. Other types of action, such as jamming or spoofing enemy communications, may be entirely automated.

If this all sounds futuristic, then the future may be closer than you think. The Defense Science Board wants to see the drone developed and exercises conducted within three years – “with a stretch goal of quickly transitioning to a fieldable initial operating capability.”

The suggested budget for the project is just $40 million. The report suggests that low cost and rapid development time could be achieved with non-proprietary software and hardware based on existing commercial platforms, rather than the traditional route of bespoke development. The advantages of the open-source approach and leveraging commercially available technology are gaining traction in military circles.

Developing a swarm of autonomous robots able to detect threats and respond to them instantly in three years may seem ambitious, but by the time the organic unmanned squadrons arrive, fleets of delivery drones ferrying fast food and consumer goods may already be a familiar sight. Such drones will also require a high degree of autonomy, and the technology is well advanced. This type of squadron certainly looks feasible; the real question may be who is going to develop it first.

About the Author

David Hambling
David Hambling is a freelance journalist, contributor and author based in South London who writes about science and technology. His most recent book is "Swarm Troopers: How Drones Will Conquer the World."