Navy Leader: Drones of the Future Must Work in Tandem

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

ATLANTA — The Navy wants to weave together imagery gathered by multiple ship-launched unmanned aircraft in order to provide it with better battle space views, a service official said May 6.
Rear Adm. Mark Darrah, program executive officer of unmanned aviation and strike weapons, envisions a future where individual ships can launch unmanned aircraft off their decks and then develop a full view of a battle space from myriad sensor platforms in the sky.

“Why can’t we create multiple small UAVs with sensors that can turn into an overall picture. Why can’t I put up a swarm of UAVs and net them together … and I can leave them up in the airspace for many, many hours at a time to provide persistent" intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance? he asked during a panel discussion at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference

“We don’t think that way. We got to start thinking that way. We need you [industry] to help us with ideas on how to do that,” he said. “That is an unattainable goal right now if we don’t start tying these things together in a common way.”

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert have made it clear that the service must operate in all domains and remain platform neutral.

“We don’t really care about the platform. What we care about is the information that turns into knowledge,” Darrah said. But data must be easily rendered so it can be pushed down to the sailors who needs them, otherwise it is useless, he said.

Mabus announced at the Navy League's Sea-Air-Space Exposition last month that he would appoint a new deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for unmanned systems to bring together stakeholders and streamline the service's efforts in this field.

Mabus said the Navy staff will also add a new office for unmanned in the N-9 (the N-Code for Warfare Systems) "so that all aspects of unmanned — in all domains — over, on and under the sea and coming from the sea to operate on land — will be coordinated and championed."

The military also needs industry to bring the services cutting edge technologies and integrate them on existing unmanned platforms, Col. Mike Schmidt, Air Force PEO for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and special operations forces, said at the AUVSI conference.

For example, the Air Force is phasing out its fleet of General Atomics MQ-1 Predators in favor of the MQ-9 Reaper. The service wants to make incremental improvements at regular intervals to the MQ-9 to keep it up to date, Schmidt said.

Using a hybrid acquisition strategy, leaders are fielding new capabilities every 18 months on the platform, he said. The service has a wish list of new capabilities it would like to add, and if a particular industry partner cannot field it within the 18-month timeline, the Air Force will kick that back to the next round, according to Schmidt.

“We’re going to deliver a software load in 18 months, and if your thing is not ready it’s going to roll to the next one,” he said. “It’s a very rigorous … but open process to get new capability on that airplane delivered at regular intervals.”

The process is based off of the Air Force’s previous “Lead-Off Hitter” initiative, which sought to upgrade the MQ-9 at six-month intervals. “It really got the ball moving on getting stuff on the MQ-9 faster and faster," Schmidt said.

Topics: Robotics

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