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The Military May Soon Buy the Same Drones You Do

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Tiny drones could scout high-rise buildings and underground tunnels for possible threats to US troops in cities of the future. But instead of spending years cooking up the necessary drone technologies in military research labs, the Pentagon might be better off shopping for the latest civilian drones coming soon to stores.

US military leaders have discussed the need for a new generation of scout drones for some time. After all, kicking down doors is a dirty and dangerous business for US troops trying to clear enemy-held buildings. It would be far safer to deploy diminutive drone buddies to provide an initial peek inside, and identify any potential threats.

While the military already deploys several types of drone, their biggest limitation in urban environments is that they can’t negotiate building interiors, says Paul Scharre, project director for the 20YY Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security. Large, aircraft-size Predator and Reaper military drones circling overhead cannot spot enemy insurgents or snipers hidden inside buildings or underground tunnel networks. Smaller military drones, such as Ravens and Pumas, are meant to fly outdoors, rather than navigate indoor corridors. Fortunately, a class of drone does exist that flies comfortably down hallways and around rooms. You can find them on the shelf at Target.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunities for the military if they harness commercial technology, modify it for their specific purpose, and field it for urban reconnaissance drones,” Scharre says.

Tiny drone scouts could have greatly helped the US military during its costly urban combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade. More recently, US-backed Iraqi troops have been fighting a grinding battle to recapture the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants since October 2016. Both Iraqi military troops and the opposing Islamic State fighters have already been buying off-the-shelf quadcopter drones for scouting and other battlefield missions.

Off the Shelf

Many consumer drones can already do quite a bit without human supervision, Scharre points out. Some behave like flying paparazzi cameras that can automatically trail their human owners in “follow me” mode. And companies such as DJI and Yuneec offer drones with rudimentary collision-avoidance technology.

Commercial drones still aren’t quite ready for military action, according to Major Jeffrey Persons, head of the Aviation Combat Element Branch at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory. For starters, they’ll need not to be so reliant on their human operators. That means advanced collision-avoidance, and the “ability to navigate in tight quarters without the aid of GPS,” Persons says. They would also need automatic target recognition software to identify indoor threats for US troops waiting outside.

Some emerging drone technologies could help overcome those limitations. First, LIDAR sensors that use laser pulses to map the surrounding area could identify obstacles to avoid. And second, vision-aided navigation could help drones navigate without GPS by visually comparing its position with non-moving objects in the environment. Such technologies are still in the testing phases, but could enter the civilian market within the next several years. “Right now, quadcopters aren’t really good enough to do the obstacle avoidance and indoors navigation that would be needed, but the technology is right around the corner,” Scharre says.

The US military already experiments with commercial drone technologies for both temporary field solutions and to guide military technology development. Both the US Army and US Marine Corps Warfighting Lab have tested Physical Sciences’ InstantEye and Prox Dynamics’ PD-100 Black Hornet as possible tiny scout drones. The Marines have also taken Aeryon’s Sky Ranger out for a whirl.

“The Army routinely uses off-the-shelf commercial technology, especially in material development areas such as small unmanned aerial systems,” says Ben Garrett, chief of public affairs at the Maneuver Center of Excellence, an Army training center at Fort Benning in Georgia.

No commercially available small drone yet meets all of the Army’s requirements to justify widespread deployment, Garrett cautions, and it often makes the most financial sense for the Army to develop its own technologies in the long run. For example, developing government-owned software for autonomous indoor navigation would be more cost-effective than paying a commercial vendor for an expensive, long-term licensing agreement.

Still, the idea of the US Army buying more commercial technologies may soon get a high-level boost. During the Army’s LandWarNet 2011 conference, Vincent Viola, a US Army veteran who founded the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, NY, encouraged the military to buy off-the-shelf products in order to keep up with technological innovation. In December 2016, Trump nominated Viola as his candidate for Secretary of the Army.

Meanwhile, Robert Neller, Commandant of the US Marine Corps, has said his goal is for every deployed Marine infantry squad to have their own quadcopter for aerial reconnaissance by the end of 2017, though it’s not clear how he plans to obtain them.

Custom Build

While the pace of commercial drone technology advances quickly, any off-the-shelf product would still need serious modifications to be battle-ready. That means becoming rugged enough to survive a variety of battlefield conditions. But they would also need to resist enemy attempts to hack their communications or control.

“The primary reason is the susceptibility of the communications systems on commercial off-the-shelf drones to electronic attack,” Persons says. “It would be bad enough if an enemy were to jam an operator’s video feed, but even worse if a drone was hijacked and used against us.”

Then there’s the problem of red tape. The US military often lacks the flexibility to rapidly acquire and deploy the latest innovations in drones, Scharre says. Off-the-shelf technology acquisitions can become mired in bureaucracy when Pentagon planners try to “militarize” civilian technologies with impractical wish lists of added features. The upgraded scout drones would also need to be fairly inexpensive, to justify deploying swarms of them.

To their credit, at least some US military leaders seem to recognize that bureaucracy as usual won’t cut it. The military’s small drone programs need to be nimble enough to accommodate and take advantage of frequent technological advances, says LtCol Noah Spataro, UAS Capabilities Integration & Requirements Officer for the US Marine Corps’ Capabilities Development Directorate.

“The US Marine Corps is not taking a traditional developmental approach to this problem set,” Spataro says. “We are working with the US Army on analysis and gap identification, while closely following maturing technologies for tailored integration.”

The Marine and Army grunts have the most to gain from closing the technology gap between today’s military drones that require human babysitters and future scout drones that could behave more like independent robotic partners. The US military’s ability to innovate like Silicon Valley and leverage the latest drone technologies it not just a matter of organizational pride–it’s a matter of preserving life and limb for the troops in the mud

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