Covering everything from bird-size spy drones to intelligent missiles, a roadmap published by the Department of Defense (DoD) envisions the future of war drones.
The 168-page paper, which can be found on the DoD website, outlines three broad goals for the U.S. military’s unmanned systems (commonly known as drones):
Expand the scope of such systems and integrate them into the current military structure
Be cost-effective, as defense budgets are cut. Drone programs were cut 33% between 2013 and 2014
Build drones that can operate in less permissible environments than Iraq and Afghanistan, both weather-wise and in terms of advanced enemy air defenses
In other words, the DoD is facing a more challenging time ahead as budgets are pared down and new strategic goals (which we wrote about here) are adopted.
Nevertheless, the roadmap, which focuses on fewer, high-end platforms, sets some ambitious goals for future drone warfare. Here are the highlights:
The Norachi spy bird
In a hypothetical scenario, the paper envisions an array of unmanned systems that help the U.S. keep tabs on shipments of nuclear materials from the fictional country Norachi (loosely based on Iran).[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”dF51TesJnMiSuRIyyRy1ehA7zToxNAhR”]
Above this nation’s nuclear facilities, a High Altitude Long Endurance unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) provides surveillance for days at a time. Meanwhile, on the ground, a “bird-like vehicle” lands on a power line nearby, providing video surveillance.
This isn’t too far from happening, actually: Researchers have already built legged drones capable of perching on branches like a bird.
Image courtesy of the Department of Defense.
Lacking both personnel and the equipment to sustain them, unmanned war drones are generally much lighter than traditional air plane or vehicle, allowing them to use less powerful engines and spend less fuel. Some plans even call for drones weighing less than a pound.
However, this also means that they can carry less weaponry. The field of nanoenergetics could change that, however.
Because nanomaterials have more surface area than regular traditional energetic materials, the reaction for an explosion is faster, resulting in more powerful explosions. This can allow scientists to create much smaller, but still powerful bombs.
Instead of using radio-based communication, which can be intercepted and jammed, the DoD envisions the use of long-range optical lasers for a new generation of war drones, which also offer higher bandwidth.
Current systems are already able to use a laser to send data at a distance of more than 80 miles.
Similar to radio-based communications, GPS signals are vulnerable to jamming, as well as environmental conditions.
The high-tech solution to this? A navigation system that measures the tiny movements of matter waves that emanate from laser-cooled atoms.
Basically, it’s an extremely high-precision accelerometer and gyroscope. For a more detailed description of the concept, see this Stanford presentation (ppt).
As an experimental air domination weapon, the DoD envisioned a “loitering” cruise missile that would provide surveillance over an area, follow a target, and fire precision seeker missiles at just the right moment.
This proved too costly, and was replaced with a different, but no less terrifying concept: the Low-Cost Autonomous Attack System (LOCAAS), described as a swarm of small “intelligent munitions” capable of autonomously searching for and destroying mobile targets (a recent update added “man-in-the-loop” functionality, meaning a human would have to confirm any weapon launch).