The next big thing for unmanned naval aviation is a group of unmanned aerial systems that can share information and then assign tasks and make strategic targeting decisions based on available intelligence.
This concept, called Motley Crew, will be demonstrated by the Navy in 2018 or 2019, said Rear Adm. Mark Darrah, the service’s program executive officer for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons.
Speaking at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space conference Tuesday, Darrah said there are many factors still to be decided — which unmanned systems to feature, for example, and what the target sets would be — but the goal is clear: Develop autonomous systems that could be strategic, collaborative and efficient.
“Imagine, if you would, different weapons flying in the same airspace, communicating with each other, leveraging a best of breed from each of the weapons and able to make decisions … about which ship to go after, so they don’t target the same ship four times with four weapons,” Darrah said. “This is a breakthrough in my mind that we’ve got to get to.”
Darrah said he also wants Navy autonomous systems to function in a role-based manner, and hand off, pick up and exchange tasks in a way that best serves the mission.
“If one of those trackers loses a target, you could hand off the weapon they were controlling for a few miles to another set of controllers,” he said. “The bottom line is that you’re passing control of those weapons among multiple roleplayers the entire engagement. That makes you more lethal.”
Other Navy departments have previously experimented with unmanned systems collaboration on various levels. The Office of Naval Research has conducted multiple tests with autonomy packages on small boat swarms, developing the capability for the boats to communicate and assign separate tasks as a group. Late last year, the Navy conducted another test with more than 100 tiny Perdix drones, launched from the bellies of a pair of F/A-18 Hornets, collectively targeting an objective.
Moving to heterogenous targeting, Darrah said, is a must for the Navy.
“If we can collaborate and share what all the apertures see, simultaneously, near real time, and share that between weapons on the aircraft, they’ll know which of those targets each of them is looking at,” he said. “We can do this. We have to do this.”