1st Lt. Dylan Bollinger of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division prepares to launch an RQ-28A quadcopter at Fort Johnson, Louisiana, on March 12, 2024.

1st Lt. Dylan Bollinger of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division prepares to launch an RQ-28A quadcopter at Fort Johnson, Louisiana, on March 12, 2024. U.S. Army / Pfc. Matthew Keegan

Across the Army, units lean into drone experimentation

In division after division, soldiers are learning to use a rising wave of robots and other unmanned systems.

In speech after speech, Army leaders have made it clear that they want more drones in more units. 

“We're going to see robotics inside the formation, on the ground and in the air,” Army Chief of Staff Randy George told Defense One in March. 

Now a growing number of Army units, and particularly their junior officers and enlisted soldiers, are engaged in wide-ranging experiments to answer George’s call—and learn to train for, field, and operate their new systems. 

“No longer is a drone just a safety net” for soldiers on patrol, said Capt. Adam Johnson, commander of Gainey Company, an experimental unit that serves as a hub for trying new technologies and tactics in the 82nd Airborne. “They have a purpose.”

Gainey’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems platoon is tasked with evaluating the technical aspects of commercially available small drones. Johnson said first-person-view, or FPV, drones have proven particularly useful, in part because their low cost means they’re easier to experiment with. The unit builds its own FPVs from scratch by assembling components from approved suppliers.  

By contrast, experimenting with the costly commercially available drones from the military’s pre-approved Blue List can create “heartache” for soldiers, said the RAS platoon sergeant, who requested anonymity for personal security reasons. Blue UAS drones cost three to five times as much as equivalent Chinese drones, pushing their costs into the tens of thousands of dollars. 

In addition to technical experimentation—with everything from drones to ground robots—the unit has grappled with the training and organization of drone operators. 

Early iterations of Gainey Company included soldiers who had limited previous exposure to drones. The soldiers’ minimal expertise meant that this plan didn’t work well. 

“We don't have the time to sit down and teach people in depth if they have no [drone] experience,” said Johnson. “It's hard to get them over that first six-foot wall.” 

Consequently, the unit moved to staffing itself with permanently assigned drone operators with a high level of skill, including drone master trainers and even a former drone surveyor.

Johnson’s work has also led him to consider how best to organize small drone operators within the service. Ukraine’s use of dedicated drone units may be something the U.S. should copy, he said.

Doing so would create a “culture of competition,” he said, comparing the effect on training and performance to that in the Army’s medical platoons. Additionally, using dedicated small drone units could simplify the process of using them to coordinate artillery fire. Spreading drones out across a formation risks having soldiers “clawing to get targets prosecuted,” Johnson said.  

Some units are already informally experimenting with grouping drone operators together, including a previous commander of Johnson’s who placed his drone operators under the scout platoon, he said.  

Over at the 101st Airborne, the division’s own experimental unit is putting a version of that idea into practice by incorporating drones into its new Multi-Functional Reconnaissance Company, or MFRC. 

The MFRC includes electronic warfare and small drone operators for identifying enemy units and then targeting them with indirect fire, Capt. Charles O'Hagan said in a video posted by the Army. O'Hagan says the intelligence gained via drones also prepares the infantry battalions to take on their objectives. 

Earlier this month, 101st commander, Maj. Gen. Brett Sylvia told reporters that small drones could be integrated into infantry formations to look for enemy forces ahead. 

Other units are honing skills through less formal initiatives aimed at improving soldiers’ drone-flying ability.

In the 3rd Infantry Division, soldiers are working to start up an FPV program, said Capt. Chris Flournoy, a former innovation officer who worked on the program. New Army guidance has made it possible for leaders at more levels to buy commercial drones and drone components.  

The program, tentatively scheduled to begin this summer, is slated to last around two weeks, with classroom, virtual, and hands-on training on an indoor and outdoor course. The goal is for students who graduate from the course to be spread across the armored brigade combat teams to become the “drone guys,” Flournoy said. 

The Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence, meanwhile, launched its own drone competition course this month: the “Beehive Classic.” 

The two-day event consisted of physical challenges—like sprints—alongside navigating drones in indoor and outdoor courses. Competitors operated in two-person teams to complete tasks such as investigating enemy positions and using the Army’s RQ-28 quadcopter to bomb vehicles with water balloons. The strikes were assessed for their ability to hit vulnerable points, said Sgt. Travis Smith, a competitor. 

The Army hopes to launch an annual competition in September or October, which may include other government entities. Future iterations of the competition might include FPV events or using the drones to call for artillery fire, Smith said. Other events might include using drones against bunkers or trenches, he added. 

Amid the service’s growing focus on drones, the Army should consider seeking out talented drone operators across its force, said Johnson of the 82nd. 

“We need to start rebalancing our massive amount of human intelligence capital to meet” the demand for drones, he said.