2016 Recap


Stay tuned for announcements about the 2018 program and call for speakers! In the meantime, please read the below recap of the most recent event.

2016 RECAP

USD Speakers Want Swarming, Autonomy, AI, Families of Systems

By Brett Davis and Brian Sprowl

If speakers at AUVSI’s Unmanned Defense event had generated a word cloud, it would have featured these words: Swarming. Autonomy. Families of systems. Artificial intelligence. Common controllers.

In short, speakers from all branches of the military said United States forces need to employ unmanned systems of all types that are smarter, more agile, hopefully less expensive, and easier to integrate and interoperate. This will better enable warfighters to “overmatch” enemies in battlefields that are increasingly urban, they said.

“The stable, unipolar system, once dominated by the United States, is being replaced by a multipolar world awash in competition,” said Gen. Daniel B. Allyn, vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army.

Allyn said that for a service that had fewer than 50 unmanned aircraft in its arsenal as recently as 2001, the U.S. Army is now planning to buy a diverse array of unmanned systems, from cargo haulers to long-range aircraft.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for unmanned systems, Frank Kelley, discusses the Navy’s new unmanned systems roadmap. Photos: AUVSI.

The Army will probably rely on “small, distributed formations against an often elusive enemy,” he said, which will “place a premium on all types of unmanned systems.”

That means increasing situational awareness, which includes fielding improved Gray Eagle UAS in fiscal year 2018. The General Atomics Aeronautical Systems-built UAS will have a greater payload capability and nearly triple the range.

The Army also plans to deploy ground robots that can haul soldiers’ gear and have a common interface for Shadow and Gray Eagle UAS to give commanders greater flexibility and reduce the operational workload, Allyn said.

Just as the commercial world is seeing driverless car testing be carried out around the country, the Army is looking at using leader-follower self-driving capability to get more supplies to the field with fewer people. One system, currently being tested, is set for production by 2024. It would allow for up to four self-driving following vehicles for every one manned vehicle.

“We are increasingly going to operate in an environment where we try to minimize the exposure of manned systems when we don’t need to,” Allyn said. “The early returns on this effort will tell you that manned-unmanned teaming isn’t something that just works in the air, it also works on the ground.”

Lt. Gen. Robert S. Walsh, commanding general of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, says Marines of the future may let robots storm the beaches first.

Lt. Gen. Robert S. Walsh, commanding general of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, said the Marine Corps is also seeking to change the way it operates by adding more unmanned systems, including smaller ones and smarter ones.

“We have been in an era where technology has allowed us to … dominate just about any enemy out there in the last 15 years,” he said. But with some peer adversaries now, “we’re going to fall behind if we don’t rapidly change the way we’re operating.”

The Marine Corps is an expeditionary force that often comes from the sea, so traveling light has been its philosophy. Now, having multiple small systems will allow it to “flip” that philosophy and have more mass on its side, he said.

Instead of launching just a few fighter aircraft, he said, those fighters could launch dozens of small UAS that could find the enemy, send back the location or even attack.

“If you sent 40 of those things out there … you can see how that is mass that we wouldn’t have if we were just moving vehicles out there alone,” he said. “The technology that you [members of the audience] develop allows us to get more mass onto the battlefield.”

Down the road, the Marines could start storming the beaches in a very different way than they did in World War II and Korea, when dangerous approaches led to heavy losses.

“We see technology taking us in a new direction,” Walsh said. “Instead of Marines being the first wave in, it’s unmanned systems and robotics … moving in first, looking for mines that may be in front of them, sensing where the enemy may be located” to plan better approaches.

Airborne and waterborne sensors could go first, he said, “sensing, locating and maybe killing in front of those Marines.”

Members of a panel discuss acquisition reform.

Adding Mass

Navy speakers also said they want more mass. Vice Adm. Dave Johnson, the principal military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, said naval forces face challenges such as more traffic on the seas, the rise of global information networks that use cables crossing ocean floors and the increased rate of technological creation and adoption, all of which have “profound implications” for the Navy.

Technology that was once the sole province of wealthy nations is now widely available, and the U.S. Navy’s budget is increasingly under pressure, which Johnson described as being a “272-ship Navy with a 308-ship requirement, which will likely only go up.”

Johnson said Russia is regaining its blue-water capabilities, an area where the U.S. was previously unmatched, so “it’s important that we keep whole our investment in our future capability,” from aircraft carriers to unmanned underwater vehicles.

That includes rapid prototyping systems and getting them into the water in 24 months, as well as accelerating programs like the carrier-borne MQ-25A unmanned tanker and the Long Duration Unmanned Underwater Vehicle.

The Navy wants a family of vehicles, everything from 10-inch diameter REMUS vehicles to the Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle, for which the Navy just issued a request for information to industry for demonstrations.

“We’ve learned from the air side that a family of systems is a much more prudent approach, a much more affordable approach [of developing systems],” said Rear Adm. Bill Merz, the director of the Undersea Warfare Division. “It really helps keep the cost down as we improve the technology we need.”

Rear Adm. Bill Merz, director of the Navy’s Undersea Warfare Division, discusses UUVs.


One way to get to where the services want to go is through roadmaps. The relatively new Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for unmanned systems, Frank Kelley, said in his kickoff speech at Unmanned Systems Defense 2016 that his year-old office is working to set up a tactical roadmap for Navy unmanned systems, one that will become a living document and involve input from industry.

The Navy wants unmanned systems to be “the new normal,” Kelley said, adding, “I do think we are on that trajectory, I feel really good about it.”

The DASN was set up just over a year ago, just in time for Kelley to make his debut at AUVSI’s Unmanned Systems Defense 2015. The goal: Tie all the unmanned systems stakeholders in the U.S. Navy together and synthesize their work.

Those stakeholders are making aggressive plans, Kelley said, including achieving dominance in the air and on and under the water, including by adding advanced autonomy and machine learning, which is “something we are constantly thinking of in the background. How much artificial intelligence are we willing to let these machines have as they operated with manned forces out in the operational fleet?”

Kelley didn’t say when the roadmap will be finished, but said he wants to get it out “for folks to read, because I think it will be important.”

It will be a living document prone to change, so there will be more workshops in the future, and will be open to industry involvement, which Kelley said is “absolutely critical.”

Attendees discuss technology with one of the Unmanned Systems Defense exhibitors.

Shad Reese, TWS UxS coordinator for the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense, said the Department of Defense is working on the latest unmanned systems roadmap, which should be published in the first quarter of 2017.

The roadmap has been underway since late February, with writing starting in March. It covers the period from 2016-2041, as anything beyond that is “pure guessing.”

Reese said that one thing has struck him as he’s worked on the roadmap: Many in the military are talking about the need for swarming, but there isn’t much of an industry base for it.

“Everyone and their mom is talking about swarming, but if you step back and look at what’s going on in industry, there are no real players in industry working on swarming,” he said.

Instead, much of the work is shouldered by academia, but “we would like to have commercially available swarming technology.”

Shad Reese, TWS UxS coordinator for the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense, talks about the forthcoming DOD roadmap.