The Air Force Is Testing A Secret Weapon: Drone Swarms

Kris Osborn

Key point: Drones are the future.

Advances in computer power, processing speed and AI are rapidly changing the scope of what platforms are able to perform without needing human intervention.

The Air Force and DARPA are now testing new hardware and software configured to enable 4th-Generation aircraft to command drones from the cockpit in the air, bringing new levels of autonomy, more attack options and a host of new reconnaissance advantages to air warfare.

Working with BAE Systems at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., Air Force test pilots are combing ground-based simulators with airborne leer jets to demonstrate how 4th generation cockpit avionics can direct drones from the air, BAE Systems developers said.

“The airplane was structurally configured to allow us to take our autonomy hardware and connect it directly to the flight control system of the airplane,” Skip Stolz, Director of Strategic Development for Autonomy Control, told Warrior Maven in an interview.

Demonstrations with specially configured leer jets are intended as an interim step on route to integrating this kind of system into an operational F-15, F-16 or even F-35, developers said.

Using standard data-link technology, the jets operate with a semi-autonomous software called Distributed Battle Management, which enables new levels of compressed airborne data transfer, weapons integration and sensor operations, Stolz explained.

A recent Mitchell Institute paper, titled “Manned-Unmanned Aircraft Teaming: Taking Combat Airpower to the Next Level,” cites Distributed Battle Management software as a “system-of-systems future landscape for warfare, in which networks of manned and unmanned platforms, weapons, sensors and electronic warfare systems interact.”

The paper adds that DARPA and the Air Force Research Laboratory successfully tested DBM last year.

At the moment, the flight path, sensor payload and weapons disposal of airborne drones such as Air Force Predators, Global Hawks and Reapers are coordinated from ground control stations. However, due at least in part to rapid advances in autonomy, the concept of an autonomous or “semi-autonomous” wingman – is arriving even faster than expected.

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