Pentagon Working with Allies on Secretive AI-Enabled Autonomous Drone Project

The Department of Defense wants to be able to fly autonomously in a heavily contested area, and is working with allies on a highly classified project to demonstrate the capabilities of AI-enabled drones that are designed to operate in highly contested environments. DOD organizations like the Air Force Research Lab and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have been working on AI-enabled capabilities, and are collaborating with allies on associated classified programs.  Last month, the White House said AUKUS has made “strong progress” in the capability areas that leaders of the three nations identified as priorities last year, which includes AI and autonomy.

Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Heidi Shyu offered a few details about the secretive effort on Wednesday. “I am interested in pushing the technology towards developing a single sensor that has the ability to listen, the ability to do jamming, ability to communicate, the ability to do [cyberattack] injects all in one, OK? So we’re working on that as well.”

SOCOM Acquisition Executive Jim Smith noted at the conference on Tuesday, “[W]e’re really interested in autonomy to be able to get the operator off of the Xbox controlling the unmanned system, and back over their rifle sights.”

Australia, a close U.S. ally, also has a Loyal Wingman program aimed at acquiring robotic fighter jets. For more on plans by the Special Operations Command to buy new, enhanced ISR capabilities, visit Image: A U.S. Navy Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewman deploys an unmanned aerial system during a training mission on July 15, 2020 (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Aven Santiago). Our thanks to Robin E. Alexander, President ATC, alexander technical[at]gmail[dot]com, for her assistance with this report.

Another layer of capability of AI-enabled drones applies to a class of low-cost, attritable machines—an AI-enabled swarm of this UAV type can achieve its mission despite substantial losses of individual drones. For more on this aspect, please see:

1. Militaries Explore the Collective AI of Drone Swarms
2. DARPA to Test “Swarm Grammar” in Urban Environment
3. 9 New DARPA Contracts to Foster Drone Swarm R&D