One project calls for the use of “micro-drones” that are tough enough to be “kicked out the back of a fighter jet moving at Mach 0.9” Carter said in a Feb. 2 speech at the Economic Club of Washington. That was already done in Alaska last year during an operational exercise, he added. DARPA also has started a Gremlins program to investigate how to “project volleys of low-cost, reusable systems over great distances and retrieve them in mid-air.” They would be launched in groups from bombers, fighter jets or transport aircraft like the C-130, and then retrieved by a C-130, DARPA officials said in a news release in August.
Carter also alluded to a project in which unmanned boats work together.
“For the water, they’ve developed self-driving boats which can network together to do all kinds of missions, from fleet defense to close-in surveillance, without putting sailors at risk,” Carter said. He mentioned that the Navy has adopted technology initially used by NASA to pilot the Mars rover to control unmanned boats. The vessels would protect U.S. ships from attacks like the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, when terrorists drove a small boat loaded with explosives into the ship, killing 17 U.S. sailors.
The secretary also highlighted what he called “the arsenal plane,” which will take an existing plane and turn it “into a flying launchpad for all sorts of different conventional payloads,” Carter said. DARPA has been investigating how to turn existing planes into “aircraft carriers in the sky,” as DARPA project manager Dan Patt put it in 2014.
Carter didn’t provide much in the way of specifics, but his comments underscore a continued effort in the Pentagon to develop unmanned systems in new ways.
“Swarms will allow the U.S. military to disperse combat power, complicating an enemy’s targeting and overwhelming the enemy through mass,” said Paul Scharre, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, in an analysis released to the media Monday. “These and other new operating concepts are key elements of a continuous process of innovation to adapt to a changing battlespace.”