Army's futuristic plan features drones that need no human help
By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 22, 2010
GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — Swarms of flying robots, pilotless helicopters that can swoop into hot landing zones to rescue wounded soldiers and drones that fire weapons without human intervention are some of the futuristic goals the Army is shooting for in the next 25 years.
The plans for such unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, are outlined in a recent report, “Eyes of the Army – U.S. Army Roadmap for UAS – 2010-2035.”
“It is the Army’s first collaborative effort ... to develop a common vision of where we want to go with Army UAS,” said Glenn Rizzi, acting director of the Army’s UAS Center of Excellence.
When the Afghanistan war began in 2001, the Army had only a few unmanned aircraft. Today, there are more than 4,000.
With unmanned aircraft logging more than a million flight hours, 90 percent of those hours in combat, “It was time for a collective vision,” said Rizzi, who added that the Army plans to field 200 more medium-range Shadow and extended-range Grey Eagle drones and to develop unmanned helicopters to ferry cargo to remote bases.
The road map, parts of which read like science fiction, includes near-term (2010-2015), medium-term (2016-2025) and far-term (2026-2035) goals.
In the near term, the plan calls for a family of the smallest unmanned aircraft so that commanders can pick the best device for each mission.
“We continue to look at ... micro UAS capabilities in an effort to bring down the weight of the individual soldier’s load,” Rizzi said. “We are looking at a family of systems that allows the ground commander to go to the tool kit.”
For example, dismounted troops, who currently carry the 4.2-pound Raven UAS, might carry the smallest drones to reduce weight, whereas soldiers riding in an armored vehicle might take a larger aircraft with more range, he said.
In the medium-term, fewer pilots will be needed as more UAS operators are trained and helicopters are fitted with equipment that allows them to be operated by remote control if crews are not available.
About half the Army’s air attack and armed reconnaissance missions and a quarter of aerial logistical resupply missions will be conducted by drones, the road map states. Work will begin on pilotless medical evacuation missions in the next 15 years.
However, manned aircraft will work alongside the drones for years to come, said Col. Robert Sova, UAS capability manager at the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command.
“It is about a balance of unmanned and manned systems working together,” he said. “When you are talking about supporting ground forces, there is always a need to have that cognitive element in play.”
In the long-term, the Army hopes unmanned aircraft will take off and land vertically, operate in all weather, sense and avoid threats, and engage targets without human intervention. The drones could also be repaired and refueled without human help.
“UAS predominantly conduct armed reconnaissance, attack and sustainment/cargo missions (in the long term),” the road map states, continuing: “Medevac roles remain manned but start to transition to unmanned capabilities....”
Another long-term goal is fielding tiny “nano” drones, the report states.
“By 2025 Nanos will collaborate with one another to create swarms ... that can cover large outdoor and indoor areas,” the road map states. “Nanos will possess the ability fly, crawl, adjust their positions and navigate increasingly confined spaces.”
Advances in artificial intelligence will enable drones to make complex decisions on the battlefield such as a decision to fire on the enemy, the report states, but adds that such technology might only be deployed if, “legal and policy decisions authorize these advances.”
To view the full report, go to: http://www.rucker.army.mil/usaace/uas/.
Sgt. Timothy Worlds, a 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team paratrooper, launches a Raven unmanned aircraft as part of the Unmanned Aerial System certification course being taught at Forward Operating Base Shank in Logar province, Afghanistan. The Army has developed a road map for employing unmanned aircraft to do everything from taking out the enemy to transporting troops.
Russell Gilchrest/U.S. Army