Drone warfare is about to change in ways that could change the nature of warfare itself.
Right now, ISIS has figured out how to weaponize off-the-shelf drones, using quadcopters to drop bombs on Iraqi soldiers. Their use of attack drones has made the hobbyist aircraft the latest asymmetrical threat, evolving from use for reconnaissance into a scaled-down, $200 version of the attack drones used widely by the U.S. military in the Middle East.
With help from U.S. targeting technology, Iraqi fighters have been able to destroy some of those drones on the wing, Defense Systems reported in a February 2017 article. But the U.S. military is looking at more innovative ways to stop drone attacks. A system that jams radio transmissions used to control drones is already in testing, and the Pentagon would like to find other ways to protect targets from attack.
Each year, the Department of Defense hosts Black Dart, a live-fly, live-fire exercise for testing new counter-drone technology. Among the defenses against attack drones demonstrated there in 2016 was Northrop Grumman’s Mobile Application for UAS Identification (MAUI). According to GlobalNewswire, it’s a “mobile acoustic sensor that operates on Android cellphones and uses the phone’s microphone to detect Group 1 drones” — those that weigh less than 20 pounds, fly lower than 1,200 feet and fly slower than 100 knots.
In November, DARPA issued a request for proposals for a $63-million contract to develop drone-defense systems for military convoys, RT reported. One of the challenges is making such a system small and energy-efficient enough to ride aboard a Humvee or a 25-foot Coast Guard patrol boat.
France’s military is developing a system that would satisfy that requirement, and hearkens back to medieval arts of war. A French military unit has raised four golden eagles from chicks, training them to attack and bring down drones, the Washington Post reports. If you saw the viral video of one drone’s final moments in 2014, you know how effective birds of prey can be against your average quadcopter.
But the Pentagon isn’t interested in eagles. The RFP specifically states that DARPA won’t consider any proposals that use live animals. Lasers are also out.
Beyond defending against asymmetrical attacks using off-the-shelf drones turned deadly, the Pentagon may be looking ahead to defending against the next generation of attack drones. A system the Pentagon is developing, called Perdix, would employ a swarm of AI drones, each not much bigger than the size of a human hand. The drones, called Perdix, can communicate with each other, and learn and adapt to conditions in order to locate targets and communicate with weapons systems elsewhere, CBS reported.
Defending against an attack like that will require new technology — a fact demonstrated by an unnamed U.S. ally that used a $3-million Patriot missile to take down a $200 attack drone, as reported by Business Insider.
“You have maybe 100 or 1,000 surface-to-air missiles,” Col. Travis Burdine, Air Force division chief for unmanned aircraft, said in April 2017, according to FlightGlobal. “But we’re going to hit you with 10,000 [drones].”
That kind of tactic could be used to penetrate a nation’s radar defenses, Burdine said, with some drones acting as decoys, others as target finders and still others carrying weapons, themselves.
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