While the primary focus for UK military drone operations has been around larger systems like Reaper, the forthcoming ‘Protector’ and Watchkeeper; the UK is increasingly funding the development of smaller drones to engage in war-fighting roles.
At the International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford in late July, the MoD announced that through the RAF’s ‘Rapid Capabilities Office’ it had awarded contracts to three companies/consortium to develop a new type of unmanned drone under a project named ‘Mosquito’. Blue Bear, Boeing, and Callen-Lenz have 12 months to design a ‘remote-carrier’ or ‘loyal wingman’ type drone that could accompany the UK’s Typhoon, F-35 or FCAS/Tempest aircraft. Flight reported:
“Following a one-year development phase, at least one bidder will be selected to build and fly a demonstrator, says Peter Stockel, innovation autonomy challenge lead at the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. “Our aim is to get something in the air before 2023”.
The concept of a ‘loyal wingman’ drone is to fly alongside or slightly ahead of military aircraft and to work in conjunction with that aircraft to undertake various tasks, such as surveillance, electronic warfare (i.e. jamming radars), laser guiding weapons onto targets, or even to carry out air-to-air or air-to-ground strikes. US companies Boeing and Kratos are already developing these types of drones, although they are far larger than the one envisioned by the Mosquito programme.
Rather than being directly controlled, this type of drone flies autonomously sharing data and information via the main aircraft. This appears to be the drone project that Gavin Williamson suggested in February – to much bemusement – would be deployed by the end of this year. While it involves multiple drones, it is not a ‘swarming drone’ as such.
Drone swarms squadron to be formed
However, related but separate from the Mosquito development project, the MoD is developing its work around swarming drones (that is, 10 – 20 or more small drones acting in concert). While much of this work is taking place behind closed doors, the outgoing Chief of the Air Staff, Stephen Hillier, told the Air and Space Power Conference in July:
“For our swarming drones programme, if we had set about this 3 years ago in a traditional acquisition route we would not be where we are today. The Team were set the most challenging objectives and I am confident enough to say the results, thus far, are looking pretty impressive. So much so that I can declare that we will shortly be forming an Experimental Sqn – Number 216 Squadron – to bring this capability quickly to the frontline.” (end of excerpt)
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