When the Northrop Grumman X47B lifted off for its maiden voyage on February 4, 2011, this super unmanned Navy drone was already earmarked for deployment in the Middle East, Afghanistan and a number of other “fields of operation”. The X-47B (at $813M each!)is a variant of Pegasus X-47A, which was developed as a joint USAF and USN program called J-UCAS, in 2001. The program was funded by the DARPA with Northrop Grumman as the main contractor. Powered by the Pratt & Whitney F100, a highly reliable engine used on F15 and F16 platforms, the X47B benefited from a population in use of 7,200 engines used in 23 air forces and logged 24 million flight hours. This platform has accomplished landings on moving aircraft carriers and autonomous in-flight air refueling – it is the best-of-breed of the Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) class – at least that we know about. Under direction from a 2015 Office of the Secretary of Defense review, the Navy moved back from the higher requirements of its Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program to a more basic unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that would primarily function as an aerial tanker to ease the burden of the carrier air wing’s Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet fleet.
Not to be outdone, the Marines have just unveiled their own Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) squadron consisting of Boeing RQ-7Bv2 Shadows (10-40 vehicles) that “organize” to provide persistent surveillance and strike capabilities. This tactical drone is similar to the Navy’s Boeing Scan Eagle. DefenseTech profiled this Marine dedicated vehicle today:
U.S. Marines could soon get guardian angels: a squadron of small autonomous drones constantly overhead, providing full surveillance and instant airstrikes on demand. And it could happen sooner than you think. The proposal for “organic tactical unmanned aircraft to support ground forces” is one of several outlined in the Defense Science Board’s mammoth Summer Study on Autonomy, and the key word is “autonomy.” These drones will possess a high level of distributed artificial intelligence. Unlike current models like the MQ-9 Reaper, they will not be piloted from the ground but will fly themselves, forming a self-organizing squadron that automatically assigns roles to different aircraft based on mission requirements.
Picture Credit: DOD illustration
According to a new Markets and Markets research report “UAV Drones Market by Type (Fixed Wing, Rotary Blade, Nano, Hybrid), Application (Law Enforcement, Precision Agriculture, Media and Entertainment, Retail), & Geography (Americas, Europe, APAC, RoW) – Analysis & Forecast to 2020”, the global UAV commercial drones market is expected to reach USD 5.59 Billion by 2020, at an estimated CAGR of 32.22% between 2015 and 2020. The military market is estimated by DefenseTech to be at least 100X that size though the information is classified and conducted in various skunk works. Motley Fool, an investment website citing Flightglobal.com, trumpeted that,
“starting up the UCAS project cost the Pentagon some $635 billion. Subsequent contracts in 2013 and 2014 gave Northrop Grumman a further $46 million, and a June 2014 award pushed the total past $740 million. This investment bought the Navy two X-47B drones, and years of test flights generating data that will be used to develop an even newer drone, the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft”
The braintrust here was retired chief of naval operations Adm Gary Roughead who has bristled at a more expensive, but less capable UCLASS, “The less-survivable, less-endurance approach, although cheaper, is, to me, not transformational,” he says. “The idea [of] a long-dwell, long-range, refuellable, survivable UAV coming off a carrier was extremely important.” The Navy expects to spend nearly $2.7 billion developing UCLASS, and hopes to have an operational aircraft ready by 2020. (Northrop is bidding to build one as well, as are rivals Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), Boeing (NYSE:BA), and privately held General Atomics.) And, of course, the Air Force has its own UAV program (the TRX) being carried out at the Northrop Grumman Skunk Works north of LA in Palmdale, CA which is focusing on a high altitude surveillance drone with a full day operational window (before refueling)- twice the flight time of the Scan Eagle and RQ-Shadow, according to Forbes. Cost overruns have been a repeat problem as the AF Global Hawk was supporsed to cost $21M but now weights in at $215M. The mission and capabilities of the TRX (or T-X) include:
The basic idea is to develop a drone that can carry 5,000 pounds of sensors at an altitude of 70,000 feet, and enable it to stay aloft for 24 hours (longer with aerial refueling). At that height, the drone would be able to collect surface imagery, eavesdrop on communications, and track fleeting targets at far greater distance than any other remotely-piloted surveillance aircraft.
The Office of the Undersecretary for Defense produced the Defense Science Board’s Summer Study on Autonomy in November 2014. The key word, autonomy, is characterized by John Canning at the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) as “a concept of operations for armed autonomous systems.”
One issue to consider is that the Russians and Chinese have advanced vehicles too, many of which are autonomous. So Canning’s OpSec of machine-on-machine warfare may just be coming to a war theatre in the no-too-distant future (or may be playing out right now in Syria). Just to spark your imagination, what do think this is?
A UFO Pyramid Power Plan in China – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CclI325D2ns
and Another Set of unexplained vehicles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjGYSGbAEUM