Michael Brown, the director of the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), on Dec. 11 proposed swarming drones as a candidate for a future AFWERX Prime program.
Through Prime programs, AFWERX, the U.S. Air Force’s innovation arm, intends to use relatively small service investments in advanced technology areas to spark significant interest from commercial companies, including start-ups, to speed the development and fielding of such technologies in the commercial and military realms. The first such effort, Agility Prime, is the Air Force’s effort to develop “flying cars” to service missile silos and to perform rescues and other missions.
“We’re, in fact, looking at a project to bring more vendors to bear on swarming drones,” Brown said in an AFWERX Accelerator virtual discussion with Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper about possible collaborations between AFWERX and DIU. “That’s something that you’ve been focused on for a couple of years. I remember the 60 Minutes segment that you hosted on that exact topic. The technology’s moved forward—a lot better sensor capability. Small drones have moved forward. There’s a lot more that could be done there, and that’s an area that we’re focused on as a project. Obviously, we want to be partnered with you on that That could even be one of the topics for a future Prime. We would love to be supplying you with some ideas that could be future Prime programs.”
Roper’s talk on swarming drones and the future of warfare aired on CBS’ 60 Minutes on Jan. 8, 2017.
“Swarming drones, when you hear that, you might thank that’s a capability that only a high-end nation state like the U.S. or China could do,” Roper said on Dec. 11. “But swarming drones are increasingly things that terrorist groups can do, that hobbyist groups can do with the right technical know-how.”
Because of the inexpensive nature of small drones and the increasingly common prevalence of the coding and artificial intelligence skill sets, “swarming and collaboration are things we’re going to have to worry about for even terrorist organizations,” Roper said.
“What we’re facing now with the democratization of these weapons technologies, that’s something that’s a new phenomenon we didn’t face 40 to 50 years ago,” Brown said. “We can’t have countertechnologies that are very expensive to deploy. That’s where commercial technology can really help us, not designing something that’s a bespoke solution just for the military, but let’s leverage the tremendous volumes and low cost the commercial sector is seeing and use that in the military. I think this is the perfect place to do that and look at swarming drone capability.”
In another development this week, the Air Force announced the launch of an innovation arm for space systems–SpaceWERX, also called AFWERX West–based at Los Angeles AFB, Calif., with the U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC).
Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett said at the AFWERX Acclerator forum this week that the Air Force will design future AFWERX Prime programs in the fields of space, autonomy, energy, gaming, supersonics and microelectronics.
Former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson announced the establishment of AFWERX in July 2017.