Professional Notes: Invest in Multirotor Collection Platforms

By Cryptologic Technician Collection Master Chief Jonathan D. Davis, U.S. Navy

Approaching the target, the first multirotor is deployed ahead of the patrol. Encountering no resistance, the team arrives safely at the enemy compound and deploys a second multirotor inside it to surveil surrounding structures before being directed inside the target building itself. 

Using VR goggles, team members are fully immersed in what the multirotor is sensing. The machine streams
real-time high-definition video to both the team and the tactical operations center at headquarters. Combined data on the contents and makeup of the facility in VR allows the unit commander to make high-confidence tactical decisions, such as the best point of entry. During the clearing and securing of the compound, the team launches a third multirotor. This one will warn the unit should the enemy launch a quick reaction force while the site is being exploited for sensitive intelligence. Finally, during the team’s exfiltration, the fourth multirotor is released to provide over-watch.

This is not some hypothetical scenario from the far future. Affordable technology exists to make it a reality very soon, and the Navy should be investing in prototypes now. 

Three-Dimensional ISR

Traditional airborne ISR platforms transit via a planar orbit that is two dimensional (2-D), resulting in a 2-D collection perspective best suited for rural and urban sprawl environments. There currently is no ability to conduct ISR in complex three-dimensional environments, such as dense urban clutter with tall buildings or structure internals (buildings, ships, etc.), not to mention in global positioning system–denied areas. As a result, friendly forces are at greater risk when operating in such areas.

Multirotors have the ability to maneuver on the Z axis (3-D) and hover in a stable formation. The vast open source market for multirotors will enable a cost-effective, highly reliable platform that leverages the best in commercial technology, including off-the-shelf computers, motors, and flight controllers. It will be orders of magnitude cheaper than current proprietary ISR technologies. 

Rapid development in the field of autonomous robot navigation software will allow for easy integration of new sensors and prototyping of new platforms. Research continues to improve multirotors through advances in autonomous state estimation (which means verification of its location in time and space), complex mapping, and path planning (obstacle avoidance). If these developing qualities can be combined, multirotors will be able to soon undertake advanced autonomous missions that are impossible for other ISR platforms. This can be accomplished by applying the technology similarly to how it is used for driverless vehicles. 

In addition, autonomous multirotors can be equipped with miniaturized, multifunctional payloads that will allow a “look, listen, find, fix” capability. This will give the operator greater standoff distance, thereby reducing risk.

An Affordable Improvement

A small multirotor platform capable of autonomous outdoor and indoor ISR would provide inexpensive, yet highly capable and agile, intelligence gathering and force-protection capability. This would improve tactical decision making and help commanders rapidly execute orders in increasingly complex operational environments. The platform could be provided to every special operations command and small maneuver component in the Department of Defense. The capability also could be leveraged by Navy visit, board, search, and seizure teams, explosive ordnance disposal units and riverine teams, and for port security and counter-improvised explosive device missions. 

AI and VR technology on autonomous ISR platforms could give a wide network of users a level of situational awareness never before possible. Blue force tracking coupled with live feed and real-time data would allow remote users to feel as though they were on the operation.

An advanced autopilot system could be applied to a full range of multirotors, from the small class (250 grams) up to machines capable of lifting multiple kilogram payloads. The Department of Defense initially should target an 800-gram, man-portable multi-rotor drone that could handle both full and semi-autonomous exploration in indoor spaces, urban canyons, and mixed indoor-outdoor environments.

As the technology matures, autonomous multirotors could be deployed from a larger ISR asset such as a MQ-1 Predator remotely piloted vehicle, a C-130 Hercules aircraft, or a helicopter. A multirotor carrying lethal weapons and a signals intelligence payload could be deployed from a MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted vehicle to strike targets with even less collateral damage than is currently achieved with precision-guided munitions. For example, instead of using a Hellfire missile from the Reaper that would level a building, a weaponized autonomous multirotor could be deployed to fly inside the building, find the target of interest, and detonate.

This advancement in technology would afford U.S. fighting forces a distinct advantage over adversaries. Indeed, multirotor ISR platforms employing cutting-edge AI and VR technology perfectly exemplify former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s observation that “AI and autonomy will allow entirely new levels of human-machine symbiosis—letting each do what they do best.” The Navy should waste no time in getting there.

Master Chief Davis serves as the special collections senior enlisted advisor to Special Reconnaissance Team One in San Diego, California. He has supported naval special warfare commands since 2004 and has served three combat tours—two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.



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