For operators, the next big thing in drone technology may be pretty small.
At a recent panel discussion between the chiefs of the four military services' special operations commands, the Navy and Marine Corps commanders said they had their eye on unmanned aircraft systems with smaller, lighter frames and more compact payloads.
"We're starting to look a lot closer at UAS payloads," Maj. Gen. Joseph Osterman, commanding general of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, said last week at the National Defense Industrial Association special operations forces/low-intensity conflict symposium.
"What I'm really interested in is, how do I operate a smaller and smaller platform with longer duration endurance and higher capability and capacity within the payload," he said. "I'm very interested in how that payload changes."
Osterman added he was also interested in interchangeable payloads to be used with a variety of SOF platforms.
"From my perspective, we get awfully wrapped around the axle about platforms within the greater discussion about UAS," he said. "But the UASs are just a truck that's out there."
Marine Corps special operations has historically made great use of small hand-launched drone platforms, such as the RQ-11B Raven at 4.7 pounds, and the RQ-20A Puma, 13 pounds. National Defense Magazine wrote in 2011 that MARSOC, with a force of just a few thousand Marines, received a quarter of the Marine Corps' entire fleet of small UASs.
Osterman said he was essentially the program manager for small UASs within the Marine Corps.
"The more capability I can throw to those from a hand-launched perspective, frankly, the easier it is to use and the harder it is for the enemy to get focused on it," he said.
The commander of Naval Special Warfare Command, Rear Adm. Brian Losey, said the Navy had seen great technological and capability improvements in the service life of its ScanEagle surveillance drone, which was introduced in 2005. But, he said, the service was already "shooting behind the target" when it came to ScanEagle's capabilities.
"The next level is going to be smaller and more controllable," he said. "So now you're talking smaller … almost hobbyist quadcopter-type platforms that are out there."
Also important, Losey said, was the ability to use systems in collaboration might not have with partner nations who might now have the capacity to use technologically complex or hard-to-maintain platforms.
"How do I convert fairly cheap systems, tactical systems or operational capabilities, how do I translate that into partner capabilities," he said.
Losey invoked Moore's Law, the notion that the processing capability and capacity of technology doubles every two years.
"Sensor density capacity, what those sensors can do is all driving toward the small end of the spectrum," he said. "I will tell you I think things are moving to the small end of the spectrum for our business."
Losey added, "Often we find ourselves on the ground in small four-to-six man elements, and we're trying to produce some pretty outsized results out of a small group of people. So we need technology that we can bring in that's not threatening to the environment that provides value."