Attack of the Drones: Why the U.S. Army Wants More Drones for Its Troops

January 14, 2021 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: DronesRobotsUnited StatesU.S. ArmyUAVFuture War

Attack of the Drones: Why the U.S. Army Wants More Drones for Its Troops

The Pentagon wants drones that fly farther and longer for recon purposes.

Army weapons developers tasked with writing requirements for drones, ground robots and other unmanned systems are consistently looking to adapt to changing warfare circumstances and anticipate the kinds of new “tactics, techniques and procedures” they will need to both envision and write as new technology continues to emerge quickly. 

In short, what will future drones and robots need to do? How will that change ten years from now? Well one senior Army weapons developer and requirements writer Col. Sam Edwards succinctly says two of the most crucial variables are “range and it is duration.” Colonel Sam Edwards, is the Director of Robotics Requirements, at the Capability Development Integration Directorate, Ft. Benning, Georgia. He spoke to The National Interest in an interview. 

In effect, drones and robots will need to fly much greater distances and stay operational for much longer periods of time without needing to refuel, recharge or be re-programmed. 

“One of the key things we have to take into consideration is the weight of the systems and the power required for these different systems. As you get smaller and reduce weight for UAS (drones) at the small unit level, then with that comes engineering challenges. Now I have this small weighing system, so how do I make it stay in the air and see further, fly further?” Edwards said. 

As a former infantry officer, Edwards explained that soldiers will increasingly be attacked by longer-range, more precise weapons through a wider sphere of conditions such as terrain weather, defensive fortifications, ammunition types and cross-domain weapons systems. This means soldiers will need to operate at greater standoff distances and leverage improving technologies enabling greater autonomy to operate larger numbers of drones for much longer periods of time at much longer distances. 

These variables are precisely why the Army is seeking to acquire a new, long-range reconnaissance drone able to operate from distances much farther than 30km away from the infantry unit it supports. Yet, at the same time, the drone will need to be “organic” to the unit, meaning it is tasked and operated from within so as to circumvent the need for greater coordination with a command and control center. The concept is to enable rapid targeting and retasking while drawing upon dismounted, mobile command and control. 

The requirement for the long range drone is fully articulated in the Army’s 2020 Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Strategy which specifies desired ranges for short, medium and long-range small drones. 

Writing requirements is an intricate and massively nuanced task, Edwards explained, as it must account for a broad sphere of interwoven variables, including anticipated enemy weapons, projected combat environments and the “realm of the possible” in terms of what future technologies might allow for. 

“We will be spelling out what a robotic system will need to do. How far does it need to be able to fly or drive? How much can it weigh? How long can it stay in the air? How far will it need to see?” Edwards said. 

The process is grounded upon two key benchmarks, called Threshold and Objective requirements. Threshold requirements represent the minimum capability it must attain, whereas Objective requirements the desired capability.

“It is a collaborative, iterative process designed to maintain overmatch against our adversaries,” Edwards said. 

Kris Osborn is the 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. 

This article first appeared last year and is being republished due to reader interest.