AFA NEWS: Air Force Drone Swarm Program Entering Virtual Phase

By Mikayla Easley
An artist's rendering of networked, collaborative and autonomous weapons.

Air Force illustration

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Air Force’s Golden Horde program is entering a new phase that will allow companies to demonstrate technologies against swarming drones in a simulation environment.

The next steps of the swarming drone program’s development — dubbed Operation Protovision — was announced as a collaboration between the Air Force Research Laboratory, Defense Innovation Unit and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab on Sept. 15. It will provide a virtual environment called the “Golden Horde Colosseum” where companies will compete as “gladiators” in order to test and assess the capabilities of the Golden Horde.

The simulation will allow the industry’s best collaborative weapons to come together and have a “virtual face-off,” Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle, commander of AFRL, told reporters Sept. 21 at the Air Force Association’s Air-Space-Cyber conference in National Harbor, Maryland. 

“The win for the research lab and for our acquirers is that we get to see the cutting edge technologies that are out there,” Pringle said. “But on the industry side, it gives them important feedback about how their technologies can operate in a mission-relevant space.”

Golden Horde is one of the service’s four top priority Vanguard science-and-technology programs. The platforms are designed to be a collection of small, networked, expendable drones that can react to changes in their environment and within their own systems.

The weapons systems had several successful live demonstrations earlier in 2021 with small diameter bombs, an improvement after a December 2020 demonstration of Golden Horde had several problems. Pringle said that after the successful demonstrations, the natural next step is entering a digital arena.

“This is going to be an ongoing, open competition,” Pringle said. "The environment is one we’re aiming to transition to the acquirer so that they can ensure that the whole acquisitions pipeline is building the cutting edge network of collaborative weapons of the future.”

Autonodyne, EpiSci, L3Harris, Lockheed Martin, Shield AI, Systems & Technology Research and Georgia Tech Research Institute have all been awarded contracts and will compete alongside the AFRL government team, according to a Sept. 15 press release. Pringle added that AFRL will work out a schedule of future competitions that will follow the first one.

The other three Vanguard program include: Skyborg autonomous wingman technology, Rocket Cargo logistics and the Navigation Technology Satellite-3 (NTS-3). Pringle emphasized that, with the Vanguard programs, it is important to stay focused in order to develop capabilities that can eventually be transitioned to warfighters.

“At one point in time we thought, ‘We can’t just keep adding Vanguards,'” she said. "We’re going to have to continuously look at which ones are continuing to progress and how we are delivering them as we bring on new ones."


Topics: Air Force News, Robotics and Autonomous Systems, Robotics

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