Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been around since the 1960s. What’s new is the wide variety of platforms, from heavy, turbine-powered warbirds to lightweight, versatile quadcopters capable of many intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. What’s next, according to Mark Valentine, the president for global government at UAV maker Skydio: UAV’s that communicate among one another for greater effectiveness, but requiring less routine human input.
Skydio has some 500 systems doing ISR in Ukraine, Valentine said. The UAVs are dealing with what he called “the age old military problem of looking over the hill to see what the enemy is doing. Detecting enemy formations, understanding their schema maneuver and improve the accuracy of targeting.” He added, “We’re even seeing it being used in documentation of war crimes.”
Sensors of all types are becoming smaller, lighter and more capable, Valentine said, just as the range of UAVs become longer thanks to better batteries and more efficient structures. He said that in addition, “we have on the vehicle increasing ability to connect to battlefield systems,” such as tactical assault controllers used by the Army. The UAV capabilities become part of the battlefield network, Valentine said, ”so that people can actually make real use of [UAV-generated] data.”
Because of the proliferation of sensors, Valentine said, Skydio’s next generation is equipped with a modular payload package.
“There are sensors we haven’t even thought about that might be valuable in the surveillance use cases,” Valentine said.
Perhaps the most important development is technology that will accommodate the simultaneous operation of 10s or hundreds of times more UAVs on or above the battlefield than is the case now. He cited Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks’s recent description of DoD’s replicator program. Replicator envisions thousands of “attritable” – cheap and expendable – swarms of drones operating autonomously.
“I think replicator is acknowledgement by the leadership of the Department of Defense that drones actually do matter, that they are having a real effect on the battlefield,” Valentine said. “In our view at Skydio, there are going to be orders of magnitude, more drones on the battlefield of the future, and that idea of one-to-one control will never scale,” he said.
“One way that we will achieve that value is to have a single human being be able to communicate his or her intent to multiple drones, and then have each of those drones independently reason how they can help that human achieve that intent,” Valentine said.
He added, “We don’t think of our vehicles as drones, we think of them as intelligent flying machines.” As they exist now, UAVs operating as a single machine “can reason around their environment, navigate with or without GPS signals, using visual perception of their environment, and also find things of interest and track those things.”
Valentine described a hypothetical situation where the mission requires long dwell time over a target zone.
“One drone could be surveilling a scene and has responsibility for that scene,” Valentine said. “It can now communicate to another drone, ‘hey, I’m getting low on battery.’ Now that other drone will, autonomously without the human being doing anything, fly to the same location, match its sensors take over responsibility and communicate to the first drone, ‘I’m here, you’re relieved.’ That first drone can now go home and get another battery.”
Valentine said that by abstracting, through on-board communications and intelligence, much of the difficulty in operating drones, “it really lets soldiers focus on the fight and not the flight.”