Many might wonder just what drones will look like 20-30 years from now? Will they be smaller and stealthier? Will there be more of them? Will they integrate AI and be recoverable hypersonic drones?
These are interesting questions inviting some worthwhile discussion regarding what current technological trends and areas of focus are likely to shape, inform and inspire what drones will evolve into years from now.
One immediate thought is quite simple. There will be many more of them. The promise and efficacy of unmanned systems has more than proven itself across the services thus far, and it is not an exaggeration to say drone proliferation, tactical applications of drones and exploration of how drones will change war are all “defining” areas for military futurists.
The U.S. Army, for instance, anticipates a fast-growing fleet of robots and robotic vehicles to operate in coordination with manned vehicles. This is already underway, yet it represents the services’ developmental trajectory and points to what an Army might look like in 2040.
They will operate more of them, they will be increasingly autonomous and artificial-intelligence-empowered, they will increasingly network domains independently and they will share data with air, surface and even undersea assets in real-time.
It is not inconceivable to envision a small army of drones coordinated by humans functioning in a role of command and control, in part made possible by emerging applications of artificial intelligence (AI).
Advanced algorithms enabling real-time analytics and data-sensor processing will by no means be limited to individual systems. There will instead be a “collective AI” of sorts wherein autonomous data analysis, integration and problem-solving will simultaneously be performed across multiple systems simultaneously.
For instance, AI-organized sensor and targeting data from one area of operations or dismounted group of soldiers will instantly be analyzed in relation to multiple other systems . . . including airborne sensors, ship-based radar, dismounted infantry units, fighter jets, stealth bombers, armored vehicles and more. Of greatest significance, all of these drone nodes will be organized, compared, analyzed and transmitted to human decisionmakers operating in a role of command and control.
All of these nodes will not only be analyzed themselves but collectively in relation to one another, essentially enabling “AI of AI.”
The Army Research Laboratory is already working on this in various forms of basic research, scientific and laboratory work often geared toward decades into the future.
Also, with the advent of greater numbers of self-operating drones likely to engage in combat, the Army Research Lab is even looking at self-healing armored drones able to regenerate after being hit by enemy fire. Such a concept, moving forward with basic research for decades from now, makes the concept of a “Terminator” type robot potentially realistic.
It's not just the Army. The Navy’s Ghost Fleet is now in the early stages of doing something quite similar. The concept is to simultaneously operate large fleets of drone boats functioning in a networked, coordinated fashion in relation to one another.
Such AI-enabled drones can instantly help commanders detect approaching enemy missiles at great ranges, test enemy defenses, search for mines and enemy submarines and even fire weapons when needed. Ten years from now this phenomenon will likely operate on a much greater scale. Part of this involves looking at big-deck ships such as amphibious assault vehicles as “motherships” literally operating thousands of drone boats. These drones will not be stovepiped in the sense that they gather analyze and transmit data in a single or isolated fashion, they will instead be integrated with AI-driven results collectively and individually to provide commanders with an immediate ability to make decisions.
The Air Force is also pursuing this kind of approach for both the short and long term, with an immediate focus being the concept of an Arsenal Plane. This application, already well underway, seeks to employ large mothership planes able to launch and recover large numbers of drones, including drone swarms. At the moment aircraft can already launch drones, the next step is to engineer recoverable drones and better networked unmanned systems.
The concept is indeed quite analogous to the Army and Navy vision in that it not only envisions blanketing areas with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, connecting drone operations directly into manned airborne assets such as F-22s and F-35s and bringing forward-functioning weapons systems but also emerging ways in which groups of AI-enabled unmanned systems can all be analyzed individually and in relation to one another. The concept here is that a small number of humans will receive immediate organized, combat-sensitive data in a collective integrated fashion. AI can even help discern which warfare “responses” or courses of action might be best for a given threat scenario by analyzing prior combat occurrences. This means fewer and fewer numbers of people will increasingly control massive amounts of sophisticated, multi-function drones.
This applies to large platforms as well, including unmanned fighter jets, infantry carriers, submarines and surface ships. The Army’s new infantry carrier is called the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle, large armored combat vehicles can already perform combat functions autonomously, the Navy is building larger and larger submarine-controlled undersea drones and newer iterations of AI will enable fighter jets to maneuver and function in ways that human pilots might not be able to in combat. This will, among other things, force the Pentagon to keep preparing for robot vs robot war.
Part of this includes miniaturization patterns. Scientists are rapidly discovering new ways for smaller form factors to perform a similar or even greater range of functions than existing larger platform systems. Sensor resolution fidelity, datalink networking, propulsion and maneuvering, and of course, some kind of weapons operations will be possible with a much smaller hardware footprint. This can make drones more elusive and, in some areas, stealthier. Smaller drones emit less of a heat signature, have fewer radar-return generating configurations and can more easily engage multiple enemy targets simultaneously.
Stealth will also figure prominently, particularly as greater numbers of drones will perform combat missions in the line of enemy fire. While human crews might not be at risk per se, the less detectable or “destroyable” a drone is, the more targets it can hit and the more missions it can perform.
Kris Osborn is defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.