Can One Single Service Control All Military Drones?

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A decade ago, as the U.S. military scrambled to gear up for unexpectedly lengthy wars, the Air Force declared that it should oversee all Pentagon drones that flew higher than 3,500 feet. Its argument was simple: these new weapons were being developed and purchased in tremendous quantity and significant diversity. Without a single controlling agency, the thinking went, the various services’ drones might waste money, fight poorly together, or even blunder into the path of another service’s manned aircraft.

The Air Force lost that battle when Army and Navy leaders teamed up to block what they saw as an epic power grab, and today’s leaders say they have no desire to refight it. But with the U.S. military once again preparing to drastically expand its drone presence, some say it’s time to think about putting high-flying UAVs under one organizational roof.

“There needs to be someone with oversight that is actually pulling together and assuring the interdependency of the systems that each of the individual services are developing,” said David Deptula, a retired lieutenant general who oversaw the Air Force’s drone and intelligence operations and pushed for a single-service executive agent. “That would go a long way to solving many of the challenges that exist in terms of providing sufficient capability to meet the demand that’s out there for UAVs.”

Air Force leaders say they have no interest in revisiting that battle.

“I don’t think the debate would be helpful or particularly useful right now,” Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said at a Pentagon press briefing Monday. “The debate was contentious when we had it…It was divisive and it was not helpful in my view.”

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U.S. Navy is also working on a drone that can fly and swim underwater


Always on the lookout for new and creative ways to gather information in hard to reach locations, the United States Naval Research Laboratory (USNRL) has quietly been developing a drone that can not only fly through the air, but also swim underwater.

Called “Flimmer”, the device has been under development for about two years, with research being spearheaded by Dan Edwards who works in the Vehicle Research and Tactical Electronic Warfare section within the USNRL. The Vehicle Research Section, according to the Navy, is “dedicated to advancing the state-of-the-art in unmanned systems technology.”

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Boeing planning drone that can transform into a submarine


Ambitious endeavor, Boeing recently submitted a patent for a new kind of drone capable of transforming into a submarine upon entering a body of water. Before you get too excited, do bear in mind Boeing’s amphibious drone may never actually see the light of day — like so many other outrageous patents — but even so, it’s still fun to speculate just how much fun it would be to pilot one of these.

According to the patent, which was discovered by the keen eye of YouTube user PatentYogi, Boeing’s land to sea drone requires the help of a host aircraft in order for it to successfully launch. After it’s propelled into the air by its host, the drone then navigates to either a predetermined or happened-upon location in an ocean, lake, or other body of water before diving to the surface. Once it breaches the water source, it then begins to dismantle its propellers and wings to allow it to move through the water more easily. Boeing intends for this to occur by outfitting the drone with exploding bolts or glue that dissolves when it comes in contact with salt water.

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FAA: Military drone flew out of control over Upstate New York

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – A small military drone flew out of control last month along the Susquehanna River west of Binghamton, prompting a series of alerts and warnings to pilots in Upstate New York.

Operators of the unmanned Desert Hawk IIIreported losing contact with the fixed-wing aircraft at 3:21 p.m. July 24, according to a newly disclosed incident report from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA control tower at Binghamton reported that an operator of the remotely piloted aircraft called to say “they have lost control of a drone and to watch out.” Meanwhile, a pilot in the area reported spotting the rogue drone as it meandered through the region.

The FAA did not disclose the operator of the drone.

But a spokesman for Lockheed Martin Corp. confirmed Monday that the military drone was on a test flight from Lockheed’s facility in Owego, N.Y.

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Army Gray Eagle/Apache Team Supporting Minesweeping Operations in Arabian Gulf

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NORTHERN ARABIAN GULF – Three Soldiers from the 185th Theater Aviation Brigade boarded the USS Higgins Aug. 19, 2015, for an interoperability training mission named Spartan Kopis. Their mission involved integrating efforts between the crew members aboard the USS Higgins, the pilots of the AH-64 Apache aircraft and the operators of the MQ-1C Gray Eagle Unmanned Aerial System (UAS).

The Gray Eagle UAS provided live feeds to personnel ashore in the Tactical Operations Center, the pilots of the AH-64 Apache, and the personnel in the combat room aboard the USS Higgins. Flying between 7,000 and 10,000 feet, the primary function for the Gray Eagle UAS is to search ahead for other threats of watercraft while minesweeping boats clear sections of the Northern Arabian Gulf.

“The Army and the Navy have been given a great opportunity to enhance the overall value of the Army Gray Eagle asset,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brandon Murphy, the flight operations officer with Company F, 1st Aviation Regiment. “The Gray Eagle demonstrated its versatility by providing reconnaissance, security and target acquisition for the USS Higgins during an overwater mission.”

Tasked with leaving an enduring footprint in Southwest Asia, the Gray Eagle UAS units are continuously working with U.S. Navy Central Command for planning and executing interoperability missions. “This training allows the Navy to see what the Army can bring to the table,” said Lt. Dan Sledz, the weapons officer for the USS Higgins.

“The fusion of different branches of service is essential to an effective fighting force,” said Spc. Kenneth Poore, a geospatial imagery intelligence analyst with the 185th TAB. “Whether in a mountain range of Afghanistan or the waters of the Northern Arabian Gulf, being able to visually see the battlefield through full motion video and what is beyond line of sight is critical to any operational element,” said Poore.

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Army Manned-Unmanned Teaming Lands in Iraq

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CAMP TAJI, Iraq – The 4th Battalion, 501st Aviation Regiment from Ft. Bliss, Texas, ended their successful tour in Southwest Asia with a Transfer of Authority Ceremony Aug. 16 at Camp Taji, Iraq.

The “Pistoleros” were attached to the 185th Theater Aviation Brigade and conducted missions throughout the Middle East and Iraq in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. During their nine-month deployment, the Pistoleros provided attack, lift, and medical evacuation support for Operation Inherent Resolve.

“Everyone had to pull their load, consistently working long hours with little time off,” said Lt. Col. Lance VanZant, commander of the 4th Battalion, 501st Aviation Regiment.

As the Pistoleros return home the 3rd Squadron, 6th Air Cavalry Regiment begin their deployment in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.

Task Force “Heavy Cav” is the first attack reconnaissance battalion to deploy with Shadow unmanned aerial systems. The 3rd Squadron, 6th Air Cavalry Regiment will provide both general and attack aviation support for Operation Inherent Resolve.

“You have a large banner and heavy mantle to assume,” said Col. Ronald Beckham, 185th Theater Aviation Brigade. “Your skill and ingenuity will be challenged; your reputation and honored history demonstrate that this mission will not stop you from getting the job done.”

“Heavy Cav” was the first attack reconnaissance squadron to receive the Shadow unmanned aerial system in March 2015. In order to support Operation Inherent Resolve, they will use both the AH-64 Apache Aircraft and the Shadow UAS. The Shadow provides real time video feeds to both the pilots in the Apache aircraft and to personnel in the Tactical Operations Center, which provides another channel of communication between the crews in the aircraft and to the personnel in the TOC.

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For the Record regarding drone contractors, only the military runs targeting chain

An MQ-9 Reaper sits on the flightline.

An MQ-9 Reaper sits on the flightline.

TYSONS CORNER, VA August 21, 2015 — ExecutiveBiz reported Thursday on Chris Pehrson, director of strategic development at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, making comments on the role of contractors in the operations armed drones for the military.

Defense One first reported Wednesday the company has conducted Reaper and Predator surveillance missions for the Pentagon since April and the publication added some observers believe this could lead to greater participation from contracting firms.

“Policy-wise, I don’t see that happening,” Pehrson told Defense One.

“There’s always a government authority in a targeting chain like that. Contractors just don’t do that.”

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Contracted Operators Flying Defense Spy Missions Since Early August

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The U.S. military wants to boost its drone presence by 50 percent in four years, and it’s hiring help — beginning with General Atomics, maker of the ubiquitous Predator and Reaper UAVs, which started flying missions in early August.

Currently, Air Force crews fly 60 Predator and Reaper combat air patrols, where one CAP means keeping one aircraft in the air around the clock. The Pentagon wants to push that towards 90 by 2019, theWall Street Journal reported Monday. With Air Force drone crews worn out by wartime operations, military leaders are turning to the Army, U.S. Special Operations Command — and the defense industry.

“Government contractors would be hired to fly older Predator drones on as many as 10 flights a day, none of them strike missions,” wroteWSJ reporter Gordon Lubold.

It’s not unprecedented for the military to hire drone builders to fly them as well. Boeing does some contracted piloting on its small, unarmed ScanEagle drone, which has a ceiling of 3,500 feet and a top speed under 250 mph. But the Predator is far more capable, typically flies at 10,000-feet and, of course, an armed variant.

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DARPA project to add autonomy to existing aircraft moving forward

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Military researchers are moving forward with development of a drop-in system that would bring automation to existing aircraft and allow for smaller crews.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has awarded Sikorsky Aircraft $9.8 million modification  to take the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program to Phase II, which among other things will prepare the system for flight tests. Sikorsky is to demonstrate the Autonomous Crew Enhancement System (ACES) on a cargo resupply mission using a UH-60L Black Hawk helicopter and perform a full demonstration on a fixed-wing aircraft.

ALIAS, being designed to work via a touch and voice interface, won’t entirely replace crews, but would supplement them, reducing pilots’ workloads and taking over in case of system failures. In addition to reducing the size of the crew, it’s also expected to improve aircraft safety and augment mission performance.

In March, DARPA awarded Phase I contracts to Sikorsky, Aurora Flight Sciences and Lockheed Martin for work on developing interfaces with systems capable of operating the aircraft without constant supervision from the pilot. Phase II, in addition to getting Phase 1 systems ready for flight tests, also is intended to strengthen the human-machine interface and demonstrate the system’s portability on the ground.

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Opportunity: DOD will need contracted help to expand future Predator level drone sorties

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The U.S. military wants to boost its drone presence by 50 percent in four years, and it’s hiring help — beginning with General Atomics, maker of the ubiquitous Predator and Reaper UAVs, which started flying missions in April.

Currently, Air Force crews fly 60 Predator and Reaper combat air patrols, where one CAP means keeping one aircraft in the air around the clock. The Pentagon wants to push that towards 90 by 2019, the Wall Street Journalreported Monday. With Air Force drone crews worn out by wartime operations, military leaders are turning to the Army, U.S. Special Operations Command — and the defense industry.

“Government contractors would be hired to fly older Predator drones on as many as 10 flights a day, none of them strike missions,” wrote WSJ reporter Gordon Lubold.

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