BREAKING: New ‘Replicator Initiative’ More Than Just Swarming Drones, DIU Chief Says

By Stew Magnuson

Illustration with iStock photos, DARPA concept art

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A new Defense Department initiative to quickly develop and field swarming drones is about more than just this one technology, the new leader of the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit said Aug. 29.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks announced the “Replicator Initiative” the previous day at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies for Defense Conference and Exhibition in downtown Washington, D.C., but said she was going to be “cagey” about its details.

She did, however, say that the goal was to build swarms of low-cost air, land or sea drones that could swarm an enemy. The goal is to field the capability within an 18-to-24-month period.

She called it a “big bet” that could counter one of China’s big advantages — the ability to bring a mass of platforms to the battlefield.

Doug Beck, the new director of the Defense Department’s Defense Innovation Unit, which will support the initiative, shed a little more light on Replicator at the conference the following day.

“Replicator” doesn’t only refer to the ability to manufacture thousands of drones to create enough of them for swarms. It is also about the ability to ”replicate” the process that will bring the technology to fruition, he said.

The swarming technology will be just the first of many initiatives to come, he said.

“Replicator is obviously about replicating those things, but it's also [about] replicating that capability, because having to solve that problem that way, you've also got to create the capability to solve problems,” he said.

A program DIU is executing with the Navy to develop a large diameter unmanned undersea vehicle is one example of a program that could fit into the Replicator Initiative, he said.

As for the swarming initiative that will be first out of the gate, Beck acknowledged that there are already several ongoing programs looking at the capability, and the initiative will draw on those programs

It will build “on the very best of the things that in some cases the services may already be doing, and in some cases that we're working with them on,” he said.

The idea of drone swarms overwhelming an opponent is not new, and the technology exists in the entertainment world to deploy thousands of flying drones at once to create patterns and flashing lights in the sky.

The war in Ukraine has also showcased several new tactics, techniques and procedures for using small unmanned aerial vehicles, including small swarms and so-called “kamikaze” drones that crash into targets on one-way sorties.

The Air Force Research Laboratory experimented with a swarm it called the “Golden Horde,” which was part of its Vanguard advanced technologies program.

The Defense Innovation Unit was created to reach out to nontraditional companies that have technologies to offer the Defense Department, and Beck said it will do so for the Replicator Initiative as well.

“We can bring those capabilities to bear and quickly build them and scale them for that impact,” he said.


Topics: Robotics, Robotics and Autonomous Systems

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