In this season’s Network Integration Evaluation, or NIE, taking place on White Sands Missile Range, or WSMR, and Fort Bliss, Texas, coordinated units of remotely-operated and automated aircraft will be used to represent a possible threat on tomorrow’s battlefields.
Members of the Targets Management Office with Program Executive Office for Simulation Training and Instrumentation, or PEO STRI, are using off-the-shelf quad and octocopters and flying them in groups. The endeavor is part of an Army Test and Evaluation Command, or ATEC, program to study possible use, effectiveness and countermeasures for the deployment of large numbers of synchronized drone aircraft.
“ATEC is our customer, they tasked us to come out and look at swarming, the variations and the payloads we can apply to this,” said James Story, an engineer with the Targets Management Office, PEO STRI. “We saw this as a threat that wasn’t being addressed and ATEC agreed.”
While drones are seeing expanded use, with many different countries building, deploying, and selling large airplane-sized drones for military purposes, small-scale drones are still gaining a foothold, mostly due to the technical limitations involved. That technology is expected to improve, and the small-scale drone become more viable as a possible weapon, and it’s that preparation for the future that is driving the swarming project.
“Right now there’s hardly anyone doing swarms, most people are flying one, maybe two, but any time you can get more than one or two in the air at the same time, and control them by waypoint with one laptop, that’s important,” Story said. “You’re controlling all five of them, and all five of them are a threat.”
Normally used by hobbyists and photographers, the quadcopter style drones don’t represent a huge threat in their current state. The tiny aircraft have a flight time of only a few minutes, and have a limited payload capacity. This makes them ill suited for the surveillance missions drone aircraft are most commonly associated with, which require an aircraft that can stay aloft for long periods of time, and carry heavy zoom and thermal camera systems.
The concern comes from the affordability of the off-the-shelf systems. Small military drones, custom designed for the military mission, and outfitted with the latest hardware can get quite expensive. The Tarantula Hawk Micro Air Vehicle, a VTOL capable military drone about the size of a large bucket, comes with a price tag in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, with hundreds of thousands more needed to train an operator. An off-the-shelf quadcopter, like the 3-D Robotics Iris series used in the test, can be bought for around $1,000, and requires almost no training to operate.
For the NIE, the off-the-shelf drones will be configured to carry special payloads for specific mission functions. Cameras, bomb simulators, expanded battery packs and other systems will be tested on the aircraft to develop and analyze potential capabilities of the drones. By conducting the flights at WSMR, the engineers can evaluate things like actual flight time and performance, as well as payload capabilities. Using data collected from the WSMR flights, the engineers hope they can increase the flight time of the drones, and make other improvements to make them more comparable to more expensive military drones.
“The payloads make the difference. When you add video, the camera, the heavier battery for more flight time … so for the smaller bird here the flight time goes from about 15 minutes, to about seven minutes of flight time,” Story said. “That’s part of what we’re doing here is seeing if we can increase the flight time.”
From a military perspective, this low price tag of the off-the-shelf drones can translate to a level of disposability. A militarized version of one of these aircraft could be equipped with light weapons like small bombs they can drop, or be flown into a target and exploded like a cruise missile.
Even still, the threat of a single drone of this type is fairly small, as they lack hardened systems and armor, making them easy to shoot down using even a simple sportsman’s shotgun. By coordinating dozens of drones or more into a single swarm, it’s theorized the tiny aircraft could overwhelm a defender, presenting far more targets then can be easily destroyed and allowing at least some weaponized drones to reach their target.
“Even if you defeat one or two, if one of them slips past the guard that can pose a problem,” said Michael Francis, integrated product team lead for the multirotor targets program.
In preparation for the NIE mission, PEO STRI came to WSMR in September to conduct initial flight tests at Condron Army Airfield. Using flight and navigation software also available off the shelf, the engineers and technicians were able to put up to 10 drones in the air at a time, conducting basic maneuvers and formations, and return to the launch point. While simple in appearance, the ability to put 10 drones in the air and execute a flight plan is a key step in the development and analysis of swarm tactics.
For the NIE, PEO STRI personnel will be deploying the drones as a kind of fire support unit. Acting as a member of the opposing force, the drones will be used for short-range missions, flooding the airspace with drones to generate disruptive radar signatures, as well as being used as a kind of spotter, using simple video cameras to try and locate Soldiers and units.
“We’re going to be flying proving the opposing force with swarm type assets, giving them radar saturation and getting eyes on using a video downlink,” Francis said.
There’s also plans to fit the drones with the ability to drop packets of flour, simulating the ability for the swarm to drop small bombs, allowing the drones to perform short-range strike missions.
Drone-test missions can be a big challenge to plan and execute. Fortunately WSMR has unrestricted military airspace, allowing the testing of remotely operated or autonomous aircraft at any altitude within the range’s 3,200 square miles.
Certifying the systems through WSMR’s flight safety office, establishing safe operations procedures was challenging, but the result is the ability to evaluate a new threat to the Soldier.
“There’s a lot of paperwork, for frequency and safety issues, but it’s definitely worth it. This is the first time integrating into the NIE and it’s a great group of guys working at Fort Bliss and White Sands that helped us along the way,” Francis said.