The squad on the ground will not need a dedicated drone operator; the whole aim of autonomy is not to add to their workload. Control will be via tablet or smartphone, or an earbud with an audio link “similar to the Apple Siri app.”
Under this arrangement, all the data processing is done onboard the drones. Rather than sending a constant stream of video footage requiring a full-time operator to review and interpret, the drones pick out items of interest and provide “immediate alerts and battlefield intelligence (to threatened squads).” The drones will also carry out Blue Force tracking so they can tell which individuals on the ground are friendly and which may be hostiles.
Autonomy means the drones do not need to be in constant communication with the operator or each other, and can work where communications are jammed or intermittent. In fact, the report says that communications “are required only when lethal force is a factor.” In other words, the drones only need a human in the loop to give the order to fire weapons. Apart from that they do everything themselves.
The drone swarm — the military prefer the term “squadron” — will initially comprise between 10 and 40 aircraft. These will be of several different types: Some will carry sensors (visual, thermal, or even acoustic are suggested), some will have jamming or communications payloads, others will carry weapons.
The current RQ-11 Raven tactical drone has an endurance of about 90 minutes; the new drones will stay in the air for 12 hours at a time.
Additional drones could be launched to join the squadron as the original members run low on juice, so it would be possible to maintain a continuous presence 24-7 if need be. According to the report, a three-person ground crew should be enough to launch, recover, refuel and re-arm the drones.
Drones will have a payload, between two and 12 kilos which means about a ten foot wingspan for 12 hour endurance.
AeroVironment Switchblade (aka kamikaze drone) has a warhead of less than half a kilo and has proven highly effective.
The Navy is known to be working on a range of prevision micro-munitions with laser or GPS guidance. Raytheon has already demonstrated its laser-guided Pike missile weighing less than a kilo which can hit precision targets from a mile away.
The Defense Science Board wants to see the drone developed and exercises conducted within three years – “with a stretch goal of quickly transitioning to a fieldable initial operating capability.”
The suggested budget for the project is just $40 million. The report suggests that low cost and rapid development time could be achieved with non-proprietary software and hardware based on existing commercial platforms, rather than the traditional route of bespoke development.
Amazon plans to start delivering packages via drone by 2017.
The Marines could have drones delivering Pike missiles over a 1 mile radius not long after.
Pike occupies the middle ground between light mortars and heavier anti-tank missiles such as the Javelin. It is a 40-millimeter laser-guided missile that weighs less than two pounds and measures just 16.8 inches in length, but manages to pack into that frame a rocket motor, guidance system, and laser seeker. Raytheon says the new weapon can be used against stationary and slow-moving targets out to 2,300 yards. Pike can be used not only against enemy soldiers in trenches and bunkers, but also against vehicles and even hovering helicopters.