YBOR CITY, Fla. --- Enter the unassuming brick building in historic Ybor City, Florida, and there's the buzz of drones in the air and sound of robots on the ground.
There's an autonomous drone that launches from a moving truck or boat to support a convoy on the move, then tracks the vehicle while orbiting around and monitoring nearby threats. There's a pistol-packing robot that can sneak into buildings, climb stairs, send 360-degree views of the site and then lock on a target and shoot. And there are drones that work together in a swarm to relay information and then autonomously reconfigure their position to reestablish communications if a fellow drone goes down.
Welcome to ThunderDrone
The U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM)-led event, which used prototyping and demonstrations to understand the potential and limitations of drones, robotics and artificial intelligence, began in September and culminated with a "rodeo" last week at the SOCOM SOFWERX facility in Ybor City.
Highlighting 30 experiments from more than 20 companies, the collaborative event underscored the success of uniting free-thinking innovators and the military. The Army joined each of the other military services in sending experts, designing experiment scenarios and scouting technologies that could support current and future operations.
"This revolutionary explosion of commercial technology is enabling a lot of things for the nation, our military, special ops, but it is also creating a lot of threats that we need to think about," said James "Hondo" Geurts, the acquisition executive for SOCOM. "What we found is where we have these really complex issues, the best way to solve them is to get a diverse set of folks together. That's what ThunderDrone is really meant to do: how do we as a nation bring together the best minds, best companies … day in and day out to solve that very challenging problem?"
The prototyping rodeo experiments were based on feedback from military officials during a series of rapid prototyping events that took place in September and October, which began with a Tech Expo featuring more than 100 companies and 400 attendees. The next step for participants included "Tech Sprints," which were aggressive, short-term periods to conduct experiments focused on SOCOM warfighter problems and feedback. The experiments ended just prior to the prototyping rodeo, where companies had an opportunity to demonstrate their results.
"The warfighting community is bringing ideas based on their experiences and in their environment, and industry is bringing ideas that talk about understanding the art of the technology," said John Coglianese, the ThunderDrone lead at SOFWERX. "And when those things come together, it's pretty powerful."
The company Ghost Robotics showed off a legged robot known as the Minitaur that can climb stairs and scale fences. Fellow participant Shield AI demonstrated a quadcopter called Hivemind Nova that can autonomously explore buildings, tunnels and caves while live-streaming video and maps to operators.
Josh Wells, founder and CEO of Planck Aerosystems, demonstrated his drone that can launch from and land on a moving vehicle autonomously. For him, ThunderDrone represented a chance to connect to a larger audience and show off technology that was originally designed to operate in the maritime theater, but now is quickly transitioning to the land domain and ground convoys.
"Our guiding mantra initially was 'A drone on every boat,'" Wells said. "But that translates really well to a drone on every Humvee, every tank. Why should a Humvee go into a village and not have the ability to launch a drone with the push of a button that can go out and scout? For us an event like this is two-pronged: one, we generate excitement and awareness of what we are doing by demonstrating it, but we are also getting feedback."
For others, ThunderDrone was also an opportunity to meld ideas together. That was the case for Endeavor Robotics, which had a small, throwable and rugged ground robot called FirstLook; and Asylon, which had DroneHome, an automated way of replacing drone batteries. Although the companies didn't know each other prior to ThunderDrone, in less than four weeks they partnered to develop a way to not only continuously resupply a drone's batteries but also to deliver and resupply the rugged robot.
The ThunderDrone event, conducted in coordination with the Department of Defense's Strategic Capabilities Office, included representatives from industry, small businesses, academia and from all military branches, including the Army. This collaboration enables the Army to leverage ongoing technical efforts and reduce duplication in employing drone and swarm technologies.
"We want to see what we can bring back to support the concept of the future fight," said Maj. Johnny Vuong, an acquisition integration officer for the Science, Technology, Research and Accelerated Capabilities Division of the Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC), part of the Training and Doctrine Command. "We want to get a feel for what is out there and who's doing what. On the other hand, we also want to reach out to these folks and tell them what we need, what the gaps are in the Army."
For the Army Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), which is tasked to rapidly bring in promising new technology as prototypes that meet strategic gaps identified by Combatant Commanders, ThunderDrone helped demonstrate the "realm of the possible" for application of drones, robotics and artificial intelligence to aid conventional land forces in the near term.
"Many of the technologies displayed are the building blocks to pull together a solution to support potential needs and wants from the operational conventional forces," said Rob Monto, the RCO's Emerging Technologies director. "An event like this highlights the power of collaboration and the ability to work together and solve hard problems."
SOCOM and the Strategic Capabilities Office expect to hold two addition Rapid Prototyping Events in 2018 at the SOFWERX facility.