ROBOTICS AND AUTONOMOUS SYSTEMS
Air Force, SOFWERX Planning Drone Battle Experiment
HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. — Come November, the Air Force and SOFWERX will pit unmanned aerial vehicles against each other in a rumble-style experiment to gather data on drone operations, the Air Force’s secretary said Aug. 9.
The competition, called the ThunderDrone Rapid Prototyping Event, will take place in a rented warehouse and will “investigate forms and platforms and effects and data science for small unmanned aerial vehicles,” said Heather Wilson at an event at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. The secretary and other members of Air Force leadership were present for demonstrations for the service’s light attack aircraft experiment, also known as OA-X.
SOFWERX, an initiative that facilitates rapid prototyping and technology experimentation between U.S. Special Operations Command and members of non-traditional industry and academia, is planning events related to ThunderDrone beginning in early September with a technology exposition, according to its website. The event will culminate in a prototype rodeo Nov. 1-3.
ThunderDrone is meant to help “completely change the face of drone warfare,” and will be “a living test bed” for creating a drone marketplace, according to SOFWERX. Additionally, it will enable experimentation along with rapid prototyping and testing.
The event will be hosted in a state-of-the-art 7,000 square-foot indoor drone test range in the Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa, Florida, where SOFWERX is located.
Officials have put out a call for experienced multi-rotor and fixed-wing aircraft pilots local to the Tampa area to volunteer their time and skills toward what they call the ThunderDrone Squadron, according to the SOFWERX website. These pilots will be “building, testing and flying prototype and proof of concept vehicles,” it said.
Special operations officials have previously warned that the unmanned aerial vehicles they operate are at risk of becoming obsolete. In May, SOCOM acquisition executive James “Hondo” Geurts announced the command would partner with the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office to create DRONEWERX, an initiative inspired by SOFWERX to leverage the possibilities of swarm technology, commercial drone technology and artificial intelligence.
It will look at the “full spectrum” of unmanned systems and autonomous capabilities, including in the undersea domain, he said at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa.
Wilson called ThunderDrone an example of the way the Air Force is attempting to innovate more quickly by experimenting and trying out new acquisition strategies as adversaries modernize their own systems at a rapid pace.
“The broader message is it’s OK to experiment,” she said. “It’s OK to do things fast. It’s OK to try stuff. It’s OK to productively fail.”
Gen. James “Mike” Holmes, Air Combat Command commander, called it a great idea. “It all comes together with an Air Force that is really interested in doing things differently,” he said.
Holmes noted that the service is involved in several unmanned system efforts. The Air Force is a sponsor of the Drone Racing League, a startup whose races are broadcast on ESPN, he said.
“We’re the exclusive sponsor in the finals as it goes through, and we’re looking for a venue where we can host a race on an Air Force facility,” he said. “They’re looking for venues that are colorful and attractive on television — we’ve got some of those.”
Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch Jr., military deputy for the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, told reporters the service is “still working on the details” for ThunderDrone but declined to elaborate further.
Wilson said ThunderDrone could be “one of the wonderful ways to get young people engaged in the next generation of technology.”
“Bring your stuff,” she added. “Let’s see who the last drone standing is.”