The Future Drones will be Smarter and Deadlier


The drones of tomorrow will be stealthier, faster, more computerized, equipped for electronic warfare, more lethal, more autonomous and, in some cases, able to deploy as swarming groups of mini-drones, according to the Air Force’s Chief Scientist.

Today military forces use Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in many roles, primarily for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) supporting all echelons, from the strategic to the tactical level.

Drones are also used for strike missions, particularly against time-sensitive targets (TST), where these persistent platforms, that carry the surveillance and communications equipment, also operate the strike weapons, providing the only means possible to deliver an attack in the shortest time possible.

These capabilities enable combat forces or agencies engaged in clandestine operations to quickly strike high-value targets before they move out of range or out of sight.

An American MQ-9 drone shot down by Houthi air defense missile over Sanaa. The conflict in Yemen presents a significant challenge to coalition air powers, where Air Forces of the UAE, Saudi Arabia have lost several combat jets and the US forces lost several Reapers to Yemeni MANPADS in recent years.

“The ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) side will get a lot smarter.

With the next generation, you will see UAVs that are faster, more maneuverable and maybe stealthy.

You will see them accompanying fighters with extra weapons, EW (electronic warfare), countermeasures and even lasers on board,”

Challenges to Drone Operations

Today, drone missions are typically conducted in low-intensity warfare, against insurgents in conflict zones or over lightly defended territory where the drones, relying on modern Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT) derived from Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), advanced communications and satellite links to enable remote control.

Large drones are also susceptible to anti-aircraft fire.

Therefore, successful operations over hostile areas require operators to gain the freedom of action – maintain aerial and spectrum superiority and access to operating bases in neighboring countries.

Until recently such operations have primarily taken place in uncontested airspace, where the adversary did not have the means to threaten UAS above a minimum altitude.

This situation is changing rapidly, with the proliferation of electronic warfare capabilities compromising drone’s navigation positioning and communications capabilities, as well as man-portable air defense missiles (MANPADS) and air defense artillery that can target larger drones at low to medium altitudes.

These threats become even higher when drones are called on missions in high-intensity warfare. To enable efficient operation in current and future conflicts drone capabilities must transform to cope with anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) battlespace.

A near-term solution is equipping medium and large drones with autonomouscountermeasure systems, comprising of jammers, electronic warfare systems, and countermeasures, such as flares and directional lasers.

Such systems have been deployed in recent years by several manufacturers, such as the Light Spear pod from Elbit Systems’Elisra.

Light Spear forms an autonomous and complete electronic attack and self-protection system that loads on the drone’s underwing pylon.

Equipped with the system, a drone improves the ability to collect accurate intelligence in highly hostile environments and improve its survivability against advanced threats.

For the RWR demonstration, this B/MQ-9 Reaper Block 5 carried the Raytheon ALR-69A Radar Warning Receiver in a standard payload pod. Photo: GA-ASI
Elbit Systems’Light Spear is a self-contained, podded electronic combat/self-protection system that enhances drone’s survivability over the contested terrain. Photo: Noam Eshel, Defense-Update

Based on multiple Digital Radio Frequency Memory (DRFM) jamming channels working in parallel, the system can cover a wide spectrum range. The low Size, Weight, and Power (SWaP) consumption make it well suited for UAS platforms operating in hostile environments.

Drones and the Third Offset Strategy

Such transformation is likely to result in broader and more profound adoption of unmanned systems, far beyond today’s remote supervision, automated guidance and control functions. New capabilities that will aid, supplement and replace manned operations in roles considered too dangerous for humans to take. Integration of large masses of unmanned systems will also introduce concepts of operations (CONOPS) unimagined before, that will challenge and offset current or future military capabilities.

Such drones will be able to function without human interaction or supervision for the majority of their mission, thus remain silent throughout their missions. Many drones will be able to operate simultaneously as swarms – groups of tens, even hundreds of individual platforms, synched to act as a group, each and everyone pursuing different aspects of the common missions. Using such CONOPS drone swarms would be able to take out the enemy’s critical and most vulnerable nodes, such as early warning radars, advanced surface-to-air missiles, or command and control elements, overwhelming such targets by expendable mini-drones.

The Russian air defense network. Drawing Courtesy of Asymetric Warfare Group

More in the ‘Future Autonomous Drones‘ review:

  • Step I: Minimizing Dependence on Human Skills
  • Step II: Mission Systems’ Automation
  • Step III: Higher Autonomy Becoming Affordable
  • Step IV: Teams, Squadrons, and Swarms of Bots

More in the ‘Future Drones’ series:

  • Smarter and Deadlier
  • Operational Challenges
  • Soldier Borne Sensors
  • Essential Changes Lead to Higher Autonomy


Artificial Intelligence and Autonomy

The processing speeds of computers and algorithms aimed at increasing autonomous activities have continued to evolve at an alarming rate, creating a fast-moving circumstance wherein drones will increasingly take on more and more functions by themselves, Zacharias explained.

Computer algorithms will enable drones to conduct a much wider range of functions without needing human intervention, such as sensing, targeting, weapons adjustments and sensor payload movements, ranges and capabilities, he added.

Developments with “artificial intelligence,” (AI) will better enable unmanned platforms to organize, interpret and integrate functions independently such as ISR filtering, sensor manipulation, maneuvering, navigation and targeting adjustments.

In essence, emerging computer technology will better enable drones to make more decisions and perform more functions by themselves.

The beginning of this phenomenon is evidenced in the computers and sensor technologies of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; the aircraft uses a technique known as “sensor fusion” wherein information from multiple sensors is organized, interpreted and presented to pilots on a single screen.

Digital mapping, ISR information from the F-35’s Distributed Aperture System and targeting data from its Electro-Optical Targeting System are not dispersed across multiple screens which pilots try to view simultaneously.

Fast evolving sensor technology, which allows for an ability to more closely view targets and tactically relevant information from increasingly farther distances, will continue to enable and improve this trending phenomenon.

U.S. Air Force

One of the largest consequences of AI will likely lead to a scenario wherein multiple humans will no longer need to control a single drone – rather multiple drones will be controlled by a single human performing command and control functions.

“People will function as air-traffic controllers rather than pilots, using smart, independent platforms.

A person does command and control and drones execute functions.

The resource allocation will be done by humans as higher level systems managers,” Zacharias explained.

As a result, drones will increasingly be capable of working more closely with nearby manned aircraft, almost functioning like a co-pilot in the cockpit and massively expanding the mission scope of a fighter jet or other aircraft able to control targeting, sensors and weapons functions from the air nearby.

“Decision aides will be in the cockpit (of a nearby fighter jet or aircraft) and platform oriented autonomous systems will function like a wing man, for instance, that might be carrying extra weapons, helping to defend or performing ISR tasks,” .

“We will get beyond simple guidance and control and will get into tactics and execution.”

Drones could lead the way into higher-risk areas in order to reduce risks for manned aircraft, test and challenged next-generation enemy air defenses and greatly increase the ISR and weapons ability of any given mission.

In addition, drones will become more capable of air-to-air maneuvers and attacks and no longer be primarily engineered for air-to-ground attacks.

In fact, early conceptual renderings of 6th generation fighter jets and the Air Force’s in-development Long Range Strike-Bomber are being engineered for unmanned flight as well as piloted flight.

Nevertheless, although drones and unmanned fighters will rapidly become faster and more manueverable, algorithms may not sooon progress to the point where unmanned systems can respond or react to unanticipated developments in a dynamic, fast-changing environment the way a human brain could.

At the same time, advances in long-range sensor technology will continue to enable aircraft to see enemies at much longer distances, massively decreasing the need for drones or unmanned systems to be able to dogfight in mid-air.

During the last decade and a half of ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. forces experienced uncontested air superiority, drones were used almost exclusively for air-to-ground attacks against insurgent fighters on the run, compounds, weapons caches, bunkers and other strategically vital targets. As the Air Force looks to the future, it aims to be capable of using drones as a key part of successfully engaging near-peer competitors and potential adversaries with technological ability able to rival the U.S. edge.

Russia and China, for example, both operate 5th generation stealth fighters (the latest and greatest technology) – and Russia is known to operate some of the most sophisticated enemy air defenses in the world.

Russian-built air defenses are now better networked to one another, have faster processing speeds and are able to detect fighter aircraft on a wider range of frequencies, making it much more difficult for even stealthy fighters and bombers to operate.

These potential scenarios, now being studied by Pentagon analysts, involve developing an ability to operate in what is called a “contested environment,” where enemies operate advanced air defenses, 5th generation fighter jets and long-range precision-guided weapons.

“You need to increasingly be able to react more to your environment in the air, addressing unanticipated failures and threats coming after you,”.

The developments will come to fruition more fully through ongoing training, simulations and live virtual constructions designed to assess various expected scenarios.

Faster computer processing power will also better enable an ability to organize and streamline the massive amount of collected ISR data.

If a drone loiters over strategically important areas for hours upon hours, computer algorithms will increasingly allow the platform to identify important tactical information by itself.

“Right now we are using lots of bandwidth to send our real-time video.

One of the things that we have is smarter on-board processors.

An RPA (drone) can orbit around a given target and have it look, for instance, for a relevant white pick-up truck, instead of having human operators do that,” he said.

“This requires image processing, pattern recognition.

Then you could just send a signal instead of using up all this bandwidth saying ‘hey I just saw something 30 seconds ago you might want to take a look at the video feed which I am sending right now.’”

The ability for a single human to control multiple drones could bring a number of implications, such as an ability to effectively use a swarm of small drones.

Air Force scientists have explained that emerging algorithms are increasingly able to allow large numbers of small, mini-drones to operate in unison without hitting one another.

For instance, they could collectively work to jam or overwhelm an enemy radar system, act themselves as weapons or munitions, or cover an expansive area with ISR video feeds.


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