Air Force leader envisions smaller, swarming drones in combat

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Maurice McDonald, chairman of the UAS Midwest conference in Dayton, talks about the hundreds of people who attended from across the country to learn about the latest trends in drones. Video produced by Barrie Barber.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

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Small drones will play a large role in the future fleet of the Air Force, a key unmanned aerial systems leader says.

Within the late 2020s or early 2030s, the Air Force envisions swarms of small autonomous drones that deploy on a plane anywhere in the world within 24 hours to project air power, said Col. Brandon Baker, chief of the Air Force Remotely Piloted Aircraft Capabilities Division in Washington, D.C.

The Air Force also envisions teaming future drones with manned aircraft to expand the reach of sensors and carry additional weapons, he said.

Baker spoke at the UAS Midwest conference Wednesday at the Dayton Convention Center, a gathering of more than 400 attendees from two dozens states and three countries focused on future trends in unmanned aviation.

Part of the “game changer” technology envisions autonomous machines communicating with each other with one or two human operators in the command and control loop, he said.

“We like in the Air Force to focus on the sexy, pointy-end fighter-type aircraft,” he said. “We can’t do that anymore, not with this capability.”

Autonomy is expected to play a larger role in future drones — among other technologies — in teaming with humans who act in supervisory, peer, and potentially subordinate positions, according to Air Force Chief Scientist Greg Zacharias, who addressed the two-day conference Tuesday.

“The Air Force is clearly looking toward this as a fundamental technology,” he said.

The military branch has teamed with the video game industry to look at ways to command and control large number of drones, Baker said.

To get to that future fleet, the Air Force also is pushing to lower costs to buy and fly drones and reduce the number of airmen needed to pilot them, he said.

Sequestration —or automatic budget cuts — continues to pose a threat to drone operations and has “flat lined” budgets, he said.

Demand for drones exceeds what the Air Force has the capacity to meet today, Baker said. “As budgets and manpower decline … the demand continues to go up,” he said.

The military has deployed drones such as the MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper and the RQ-4 Global Hawk in reconnaissance and surveillance or ground attack missions. The 178th Wing at Springfield Air National Guard Base, for example, flies Predator missions around the clock with pilots and operators at the base controlling missions in combat overseas.

A new wave of drones would be added to the fleet as current UAVs are pulled out, Baker said.

Drones could be a path to acquire weapons more quickly at less cost compared to weapon systems that have taken decades to develop and field, he added. “This is our way of taking back the economic advantage,” he said.