The Air Force Wants To Make Its Drones Smarter and Deadlier

An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft prepares to taxi out of a hangar, Aug. 8, 2008.

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An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft prepares to taxi out of a hangar, Aug. 8, 2008.

The Reaper's next chapter includes better sensors, more autonomy, bigger weapons.

Can a weapon designed to take out low-tech terrorists be upgraded to attack an enemy with its own air force?

Today, the United States operates armed drones like the General Atomics Predator and Reaper primarily in what’s called permissive environments — places like Syria or Iraq where the enemy lacks the weapons to bring down a drone flying at 50,000 feet. But the military has long thought such aircraft to be “useless” against against decent air defenses with radar, interceptor missiles, or aircraft.

In June, the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board completed a study (the first of three) that suggested the Air Force could modify the Reaper to be at least somewhat useful against a well-defended enemy, the board’s chair, Werner J.A. Dahm, told reporters Monday.

To prepare the Reaper for tougher fights, the committee recommended giving it a radar warning receiver and other improvements for situational awareness — “things that allow you to have some ability to understand when the aircraft is being painted by an adversary system,” said Dahm.

But better eyes and ears won’t have a big effect unless those sensors are matched by upgrades to the ground cockpits, or control stations, that allow operators to steer drones, select targets, and fire at them, Dahm said.

Ground control stations are a concern for Air Force scientists and a point of complaint for drone operators. Last year, Mica Endsley, then the Air Force’s chief scientist, called the pilot interface “awful.” A handful of drone operators offered similar assessments when Defense One recently visited Nevada’s Creech Air Force Base. They said the most annoying aspect of flying a Reaper is the down display diagnostic system, which requires drone and sensor operators to know, or be able to quickly look up, hundreds of acronyms in order to make small adjustments to settings. It’s like using an Excel spreadsheet to perform maintenance while also trying to target a terrorist and hit him with a missile.

The Air Force is looking at ways to improve the operator interface. Reaper maker General Atomics has made a new ground control station called the Cockpit Block 50 Ground Control Station that’s supposed to be rolled out in the next four years. It features a more video-game-like controller and would replace the down display with a touchscreen map.

These improvements — better sensors and a better user experience for pilots that allows them to access more data in a way that’s not mentally overwhelming— are also key to increasing a drone’s autonomy. And that, according to Dahl, is essential to their success in contested environments.

In a June Air Force report on the future of drone autonomy, Endsley offered a similar judgment: that greater autonomy can change the game only if the operator still has all the possible information needed to override the robot’s bad decisions, except in situations where the operator can’t exercise control.

“Airmen will be more effective at interacting with the system if they are in-the-loop and active in making decisions about the autonomy and controlling its operation. Situations where the autonomy is activated without specific input from the airman should be minimized to situations of imminent danger (e.g., aircraft collision, defensive actions of a cyber system) where the airman is either unable to respond, due to being incapacitated for example, or unable to make a decision in the extremely short timeframes available,” the report said.

Dahl said automatic takeoff and landing, something that the Army has already begun pulling off for some drones, is perhaps the lowest-hanging fruit.

Drones in heavily contested environments will also need precision navigation and timing systems so they can continue their missions even when a sophisticated enemy knocks out their ability to use GPS. And the Air Force will have to use advanced modeling and simulation to develop more detailed technology program plans for contested environments. “You have to run large numbers of scenarios,” Dahl said.

If those components all come together, the Air Force will be able to send the Reaper on a much wider variety of missions and put the MQ-9’s 3,000-pound payload to broader use. “They have enough size, weight and power to run” a much wider variety of weapons, said Dahl.

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