The Pentagon's Silicon Valley Outpost Is Bringing "Robotic Wingmen" to the Battlefield

By Rhett Jones on at

DIUx is an initiative by the US Department of Defense that has set up in Silicon Valley to incubate special projects and it’s starting to roll out some fully formed concepts. The latest prototype the programme has produced would allow Maverick to fly with a robotic Goose, and it’s totally okay if this wingman dies.

The Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DUIx) was founded by former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter as a sort of liaison between the DoD and innovators who wouldn’t want to work in the military environment. The red tape-laden process of working within the government is the opposite of the move fast and break things mindset that Silicon Valley adores. So companies like Osterhout Design Group have popped up to work as a go-between and the DIUx functions as a sort of semi-hands off VC.

All-in-all, the programme doesn’t seem like it’s been going so well. Carter has announced the beginning of DUIx 2.0, which isn’t usually a reassuring phrase, and Elon Musk recently had some meetings with the Pentagon to start something secret. The branch needs a win and the robotic wingmen are being pushed out in a show of results.

The programme itself may not be going smoothly but according to Defense News, it’s been good for the companies that DIUx invests in. $1.5 billion in private cash has flowed to companies that first received the Pentagon’s money. Kratos Defense and Security Solutions is handling the drone wingmen project. According to the Washington Post:

On Tuesday, Kratos Defense and Security Solutions officially announced two new classes of drones designed to function as robotic wingmen for fighter pilots. Development of the UTAP-22 Mako has been funded by the Defense Department’s Silicon Valley laboratory, dubbed DIUx. Separately, the company showed off a larger, 30-foot-long drone backed by the Air Force called the XQ-222 Valkyrie, with a range of more than 4,000 nautical miles.

Aviation experts say the speed and altitude capacities published by Kratos suggest the drones could fly in tandem with an F-16 or F-35 fighter. The company says it has already successfully flown the drones alongside manned aircraft and that it will soon embark on an advanced round of testing above California’s Mojave Desert employing a more sophisticated array of sensing technology to determine just how autonomous the drones can be.

The testing is set for July and a “demonstrated military exercise” is scheduled for sometime in the second half of 2017. That’s pretty darn fast for a military project. Usually, when we hear about these experimental designs, they’ve been in development for many years, haven’t changed much, and have years of development ahead of them.

According to Kratos’ president, Steven Fenley, “These systems can conduct fully autonomous missions.” The idea is for them to fly alongside a manned aircraft and be able to independently perform manoeuvres. For now, the sensors are directing to drone to mimic the piloted aircraft’s movements but in the future, they may be flying ahead or independently drawing enemy fire.

Kratos contract with DIUx is for only $12.6 million. We don’t know how much outside funding has also come in, but if the project is a success it would certainly demonstrate that the program’s approach with small private-sector investment is working. I wouldn’t hold your breath. [Washington Post]

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