Testing Drones in Combat


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In a few months, the U.S Air Force and SOFWERX will pit UAVs against each other in a rumble-style experiment to gather data on drone operations, the Air Force’s secretary, Heather Wilson, said. The competition, called the ThunderDrone Rapid Prototyping Event will “investigate forms, platforms, effects and data science for small unmanned aerial vehicles,” said Wilson.

According to nationaldefensemagazine.org, SOFWERX, an initiative that facilitates rapid prototyping and technology experimentation between U.S. Special Operations Command and members of non-traditional industry and academia, is planning events related to ThunderDrone beginning in early September with a technology exposition. The event is meant to help “completely change the face of drone warfare,” and will be “a living test bed” for creating a drone marketplace, according to SOFWERX. Additionally, it will enable experimentation along with rapid prototyping.

Special operations officials have previously warned that the unmanned aerial vehicles they operate are at risk of becoming outdated. In May, SOCOM acquisition executive James Geurts announced the command would partner with the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office to create DRONEWERX, an initiative inspired by SOFWERX to leverage the possibilities of swarm technology, commercial drone technology, and artificial intelligence.

Wilson called ThunderDrone an example of the way the Air Force is attempting to innovate more quickly by experimenting and trying out new acquisition strategies as adversaries modernize their own systems at a rapid pace. “The broader message is it’s OK to experiment,” she said. “It’s OK to do things fast. It’s OK to try stuff. It’s OK to productively fail.”

Gen. James “Mike” Holmes, Air Combat Command commander, called it a great idea. “It all comes together with an Air Force that is really interested in doing things differently,” he said.

Holmes noted that the service is involved in several unmanned system efforts. The Air Force is a sponsor of the Drone Racing League, a startup whose races are broadcast on ESPN, he said.