SDSR, Drones and Autonomy

“There is extra money for unmanned aerial vehicles, and I think that anyone who has been to Afghanistan and seen the incredible work that is being done there knows that is a capability in which we should be investing” 

David Cameron’s statement on the Strategic Defence Review, 19th October 2010  (Hansard Column 817)


Prime Minister David Cameron’s vision of a “growing fleet” of drones, together with a commitment to extra money for drones in his statement on the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) this week will have delighted the drone industry.  While there is little detail at this stage, the financial commitment together with recent noises about greater cooperation on military projects with France will have boosted the idea of a new joint Anglo-French drone.  

As we reported in June, the MoD has confirmed that a study into the possibility of a joint French-Anglo drone was underway (MoD confirms joint UK/France study into future drone). This week French executives met with General Atomics after French Defence Minister Hervé Morin, told a government committee that his favoured way forward was to purchase Reaper drones in the short-term and to “build a European system” in the medium term.

A British-French military summit has been announced for November  and no doubt an announcement will be made then.

Meanwhile the push towards greater autonomy for drones continues.  At this week’s C4SIR conference in Washington, US Airforce Colonel JR Gear, the USAF Director of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Task Force urged us to embrace drone autonomy.  According to Henry Kenyon writing for Defense Systems, Gear said:  

Multi-aircraft control technology allows a pilot to manage several UAVs, while autonomous fight software can provide robot aircraft with the ability to carry out their missions with minimal supervision. The two capabilities could dramatically cut the number of personnel required to maintain an airborne presence in the region. Some 570 pilots are currently required to manage 50 UAV orbits. The new technology could cut this number to 150 pilots.

Kenyon’s excellent article goes on to look at the recent US military document, Technology Horizons, which examines key science and technology needs for the USAF over the next 20 years.  On the issue of drones  

 By 2030 technology will have reached the point that humans will be the weakest part of the system. Humans and machines will have to work more closely through new types of interfaces and by directly augmenting human performance. This could include drugs or implants to improve memory, alertness and cognition. The service is even considering the use of human brain waves or genetics to control and manage systems.

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