A demonstration of a voice-controlled nano-UAV from FLIR at the SOF Week conference in Tampa, Florida, on May 9, 2023.

A demonstration of a voice-controlled nano-UAV from FLIR at the SOF Week conference in Tampa, Florida, on May 9, 2023. Patrick Tucker / Defense One

US Military Now Has Voice-Controlled Bug Drones

And next year, they might talk back.

TAMPA—Tomorrow’s missions may take U.S. special operators into places where they’d rather not control drones by hand, so the maker of the popular Black Hornet nano-drone has added a way to steer it by simple voice commands.

U.S. operators began using the Black Hornet after seeing British forces flying them in Afghanistan in 2011. Years of experiments with optical and thermal cameras have turned the nano-drone into a key element of the U.S. Army’s soldier-borne sensor program. Now its manufacturer, Teledyne FLIR, has teamed up with AI startup Primordial Labs to add voice control.

At the Global SOF Foundation’s SOF Week event here, a drone operator used a book-sized computer and a few quick voice commands to send a drone to a series of locations in a noisy conference hall. 

The software could be used for just about any kind of drone or system, said Mick Adkins, who runs product and business development for Primordial Labs. He said U.S. Special Operations Command had asked for a demo on seven types of drones, using “a whole inventory of discrete commands,” including “manipulating the sensor, looking at things, moving elevation, interacting with waypoints.”

The mission-level commands, the mission-type orders that we're supporting right now are things like route, area, and zone reconnaissance, searching between a point, orbiting a point, conducting different scan patterns within a given area. And we're actually on contract with [U.S. Army Special Operations Command] to add 100 autonomous behaviors this year,” he said.

Because ordering a flying bug drone around is potentially more complicated than steering it with a joystick, the Primordial Labs team worked to make sure the software could understand the user’s intention across a variety of different ways to order the drone to do something. That’s key as multiple operators may need to issue commands to the drone depending on the situation. 

Primordial Labs CEO Lee Ritholtz previously worked with DARPA and Lockheed Martin on software for autonomous F-16s. He said that the company next hopes to enable the drone to talk back to its operator about what it sees—that is, what it detects using object-recognition software. So the software might tell the operator how many people, trucks, or enemy troops are in a particular area. Depending on the drone and the optics package, it might pick up things like a hidden firearm that the naked eye might miss. Ritholtz said that he hoped to debut that capability next year but cautioned, “It's a very hard problem and I would not take anyone seriously who says it's easily solved.”