Army Wants More Autonomy for its Next-Generation Tactical Drones

By Stew Magnuson
MQ-1C Gray Eagle

Photo: Army

AUSTIN, Texas — The Army is in the beginning stages of developing a new family of tactical unmanned aerial vehicles that would eventually replace drones such as the Gray Eagle and Shadow, a senior service official said March 20.

The Army will be looking for more autonomy for its next-generation tactical unmanned aerial systems program, Jeffrey Singleton, the service’s director of technology, said at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Science and Engineering Technology conference in Austin, Texas.

“Right now they are looking at concept designs and development demonstrations of these advanced unmanned systems with synergistic teaming," he said. One thing the Army is not looking for is systems employing preprogrammed flights, he added. Autonomy must be a key part of the new UAVs, he said.

“What we’re going for is one pilot, or one operator, controlling eight, 10, 12 different UAS systems as wingmen for our rotorcraft systems ... or a ground system," he said. “How do we really get after that?”

The Army wants to capture some of the technologies that will allow that kind of capability, he added. It’s about “how do you make that system a true partner and reduce the burden on whoever is the human operator.”

The new drones will need to fly longer ranges with higher endurance and more quietly than the current generation of tactical UAVs, he said. Since they are envisioned as wingmen, they will have to achieve “operational parity” with manned systems, a slide Singleton displayed said. The development should go hand-in-hand with the service’s Future Vertical Lift program, which is seeking to develop the next generation of Army helicopters, the slide said.

The Army will look for increased survivability in contested environments along with reliability, Singleton added. “It really has to be something the soldier can trust.”

The program will be a combined effort and will include the Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center, the Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center and the Army Research Laboratory, he said. Contractors wanting to be involved in the early experimentation stages should contact one of these three organizations, he added.

The Army aviation center is overseeing the program and last fall issued $2 million in contracts to five industry teams to do some preliminary studies, according to information posted on the center’s website.

The Army is also not interested in incremental development for the next-generation UAS, Singleton said. It wants immediate overmatch against rivals.

Flight demonstrations will be held to prove the technologies, which will inform the requirements for the next-generation systems, he said.

“Plan to see an increased emphasis on this area for the Army,” he said.

Topics: Army News, Robotics and Autonomous Systems, Robotics

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