Future UAVs must multitask, Air Force says

Next-generation drones, such as the MQ-X, will need to do more than gather intelligence and carry weapons

The Defense Department is reassessing its view of unmanned aerial vehicles – a key component of modern combat operations – and deciding what the military needs from UAVs beyond their traditional use as a platform to gather intelligence and fire weapons. 

The next-generation UAVs will need to take on additional duties including cargo transport, refueling and possible medical applications, and they will need to be interoperable with different platforms, users and military services, DOD officials said at an Institute for Defense and Government Advancement summit on UAVs this week in Vienna, Va.

“UAVs are 99 percent [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] today. In the future, they need to be multipurpose – ISR and [target acquisition], aerial network layer, attack capabilities, sustainment and cargo,” said Glenn Rizzi, deputy director at the Army Unmanned Aerial Systems Center of Excellence.

The military should concentrate on developing modular, plug-and-play aircraft built on standardized interfaces – one aircraft for multiple missions, similar frames for one platform, according to Col. Dale Fridley, director of the Air Force Unmanned Aerial Systems Task Force.

“We need to define interoperable architecture. And right now we’re working with [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] to define what that interface will look like,” Fridley said. He added that capabilities for “sense-and-avoid” aircraft detection technology, interoperable command and control, multi-access controls and enhanced human-system interfaces are among the most important short-term enablers in developing next-generation UAVs.

Fridley highlighted the MQ-X unmanned aerial system, the follow-on to the existing MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper UAVs, as the “embodiment of the flight plan.”

Officials at the UAV summit compared the versatile needs of the next-generation UAV to the flexibility of today’s C-130.

Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Air Force deputy chief of staff for ISR, also pointed to the potential of the MQ-X, saying it will need to have the right size, weight and power to handle a combination of various payloads and missions.

Deptula also called for increased durability and survivability for upcoming UAV designs, cautioning “the current environment [UAVs operate in] is permissive. We need to be prepared for a contested and denied environment.”

The Air Force is working to incorporate the next-gen requirements into designs of the MQ-X. Col. Bruce Emig, chief of the irregular warfare division of the Air Combat Command, said his department is working with Air Force Materiel Command, Air Mobility Command and Air Force Special Operations Command to establish requirements for the new UAV designs.

Emig said the Air Force intends to have the requirements finalized in time to be included in its 2014 Program Objective Memorandum.

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a staff writer covering military networks for Defense Systems.

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