The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced on June 7 that its Mobile Force Protection (MFP) program recently demonstrated a counter unmanned aircraft system (C-UAS) solution at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida that can target multiple drones with high levels of autonomy and no operator interference.
The system, which has been in the works for four years, has a multi-layer defense architecture and was made to operate in populated areas with little collateral damage and target large numbers of UAS, Gregory Avicola, MFP program manager, told Defense Daily.
“This wasn’t a system that was developed for a particular services’ requirements,” Avicola said. “We were looking to the future where unmanned aerial vehicle threats come in larger numbers and potentially could have autonomy on board so that you can’t just rely on disabling radio links or something like that as a countermeasure. So, MFP wanted to explore the ability to develop a system capability that can be operated on the move, could operate against relatively large numbers of threats, and could do so in ways that had kinetic takedowns.”
The high level of automation that this system demonstrates is required to target large numbers of drones, Avicola said. While there is still a human in the loop, they are there in more of an oversight role. The operator can interfere to stop the system from targeting a drone.
“They basically have override authority over the whole system, but they don’t, for instance, manually decide this interceptor will go take on that target that’s all happening automatically,” Avicola said.
Avicola said the system was able to counter multiple UAS during demonstrations but was not able to quantify how many drones it was able to target.
The system uses a newly developed X-band radar to fuel this autonomy. The X band radar detects and identifies the UAS targets, and then it picks a specific interceptor through automation to counter the drone.
“In terms of the whole classification problem, the X-band radar was important,” Avicola said. “There are commercial products out there that do drone detection, but they tend to be lower frequency radars and so they weren’t really suitable for the purpose of the integrated system we were trying to prove was possible. So, what we needed to do was basically build an X-band radar that had all the functionality we want by was also small enough that you could pack it into a counter UAS system.”
The system not only uses sensors onboard the primary components but also uses sensors on the interceptor to find the target UAS and negate the threat, Avicola said.
“The primary system…basically fuse a picture together from the onboard sensors, autonomously decide whether or not a particular contact is behaving in a threatening manner based upon ROEs you can program into the system, and tries to classify the target as biologic versus manmade, for example, automatically,” he said. “All of that happens and then with the human on the loop, the system can choose to engage targets. When it launches an interceptor out to go engage a target, it guides the interceptor to an intercept point, the interceptor itself has an onboard sensor that it uses to acquire the target, and once it has that target and on its onboard sensor, it completes the negation fully autonomously.”
The system uses an integrated layered approach on top of the autonomy engine, Avicola said. In the demonstration, DARPA used a Dynetics interceptor called Cougar. The other layered defense they used was Lockheed Martin’s [LMT] Morpheus. Dynetics is part of Leidos [LDOS].
“One of the things we tried to demonstrate that we could integrate a layered defense approach into this autonomy engine,” Avicola said. “We only demoed two layers, but we conceived more…you could add additional layers or replace layers if you wanted and the system architecture supports that.”
The system was also made to be reusable to cut down on costs.
“Counter UAS is one of those problems that can get asymmetric really fast,” Avicola said. “Somebody can throw a couple $100 drones at you and if you’re spending $100,000 or $10,000 a shot to take down that drone, the mere fact they throw drones at you is to their benefit because there’s a cost asymmetry. So, we wanted our solution to be basically reusable.”
While the primary system continues to operate after launching the interceptor, the interceptor was also designed to be reclaimed and reused. During the demonstration, DARPA used the system on a Humvee where the original system was able to continue engaging UAS threats.
“Obviously the system on the Humvee continues to operate after a mitigation, but the interceptors that get thrown out of the Humvee to go do their jobs, you can see they’re not physically harmed by that engagement,” Avicola said. “They fire out their effectors…but then at the end of their engagement, they’re basically battery power Class Two drones so they fly back to a rendezvous point or to the side of the road or whatever the operator wants in terms of the CONOPS and they land themselves, you swap out the battery, and you swap out the adventure cannon, and you’re ready to fly again. So, the per kill cost of mitigation is very low.”
Because the system was made to operate in populated areas the effectors had to be low collateral. With this solution the top concern is the UAS threat falling in an uncontrolled fashion, Avicola said.
“Building counter UAS systems that fire bullets or explosives may be well and good in certain theaters but it’s not a viable solution in many places where you might have a UAS problem,” Avicola said. “So, we wanted to push the technology forward and towards very low collateral damage solutions…Basically the most dangerous thing that happens is that the threat drone falls out of the sky in some uncontrolled fashion. That’s still something the operator needs to think about but it’s significantly less impactful than sort of mini-solutions you hear about using kinetics or explosives.”