Stoking its rivalry with the Air Force, the Army plots a way forward for its fleet of unmanned airplanes -- predicting a wider range of missions, the rise of remotely piloted helicopters and the arrival of swarms of indoor-flying mini-drones.
Popular Mechanics spoke with those on the forefront of unmanned Army aviation to get a glimpse of what the service wants from its robotic fleet.
Army officials Thursday released a plan that lays out how the service will use unmanned aerial vehicles over the next 15 years, proposing a future where autonomous UAVs fly for days over battlefields or for scant minutes inside buildings.
Maj. Gen. James Barclay III, the commanding general in charge of Army aviation, today released the "Unmanned Aircraft Systems [UAS] Roadmap 2010–2035" at an Army aviation conference in Fort Worth, Texas. Its subtitle, "Eyes of the Army," hints at the plan's early focus on reconnaissance, but the scope of the roadmap expands enough so that, by 2025, a single soldier will be able to use a common controller to operate multiple kinds of unmanned aerial vehicles, including tiny robots that can fly indoors.
3 UAV Game Changes from the U.S. Army
The Army's future vision includes fewer pilots as aircraft fly themselves, but also relies on converting existing aircraft into optionally piloted vehicles, especially its fleet of utility and cargo helicopters. "We really expanded on this in the road map because the army has such an investment in capital in its manned platforms," says Col. Chris Carlile, director of the UAS U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence, where the report was drafted. "Building off an existing fleet is a way to stay current with upgrades."
How to control the fast-paced development of UAVs is a major focus for the Pentagon. Last year the Air Force—which has attempted without success to become the lead government agency directing the development of all military unmanned aerial systems—released a detailed document that charted UAV development, as they see it. (Popular Mechanics covered the Air Force's plan in depth earlier this year.)
The Army and Air Force's road maps give an interesting glimpse into how two military services view the future of war. After all, next year the Office of the Secretary of Defense will gather the squabbling parties and revise their plans for UAS development, incorporating ideas from both services' plans.
Where do the two reports overlap? The Army agrees with the Air Force that more UAVs need to be multipurpose, one day hauling cargo and another serving as a communications relay. Both reports acknowledge that soldiers and pilots will have to increasingly trust robots as their squad mates and wingmen as the machines become smarter, more ubiquitous and more capable of performing without human guidance.
Other branches of the government have to adjust, too: Both reports predict that, very soon, the Federal Aviation Administration will open its airspace to unmanned aerial vehicles that are equipped with sensors that enable them to avoid other aircraft.
And, in varying time frames, both reports predict that UAVs will be armed with air-to-air missiles and more ground-attack munitions, pods that can detect weapons of mass destruction, or tunnels and payloads that can conduct electronic warfare missions such as jamming radar or eavesdropping on enemy signals.
The differences in the reports are telling, as well. The Air Force's timeline for technological development is more aggressive, proposing to build a family of unique aircraft imbued with more powerful automation. This includes automatic target recognition and, perhaps by 2025, the ability to kill targets without direct human permission.
Army officials flatly state that this will not happen. "We don't believe in the next 25 years you will see a level of autonomy that we as an American people would allow ... a platform to kill autonomously," Carlile says. "It comes down to this: The technology will exist before we, as a people and as a nation, will accept it."