One Marine could soon dispatch more than a dozen drones to jam enemy communications and take out targets -- all from a single handheld tablet.
The Marine Corps Warfighting Lab has successfully tested the ability to have a single Marine operate six drones in the air simultaneously. The goal is to get that up to 15 and to see the small unmanned systems stay in the air for hours at a time.
"What we're looking at is ... minimal operator burden so [a Marine's] face isn't down in a tablet," said Capt. Matt Cornachio, a fires project officer with the Warfighting Lab's science and technology division. "It's sort of having the machines do the work for you, so you give them intent and they operate."
That could help ground troops in remote or hotly contested locations augment 60mm mortar fire with precision strikes. Cornachio said they're looking for drones with a host of potentials, including swarming, automatic-target recognition, kinetic-strike and electronic-warfare capabilities.
"Your swarm is multifaceted so you have several warheads that hold their own capabilities in that cloud," he said. "... We see the precise nature of loitering munitions to augment company-level fires."
In order to carry out a range of missions -- from delivering explosives to jamming communications, the Marine Corps is on the hunt for drone swarms that can stay in the air for hours. The Warfighting Lab held a drone-endurance test in the desert this month, Cornachio said, during which one unmanned aircraft flew for nearly two hours straight.
"It's not out of the realm of possibility that these things could be in the air for three or four hours, so the smaller, the better," he added.
Getting to the point where one Marine controls a swarm of drones is a big change from unmanned systems like the Switchblade, which required one operator per drone. That kamikaze-style drone delivers a payload equivalent to a 40mm grenade.
The Warfighting Lab's efforts are part of a larger Marine Corps strategy called Sea Dragon 2025. Marines are experimenting with drones, self-driving vehicles, robotics and other technology that can limit their exposure in the field. The use of unmanned technology could be especially beneficial in complex urban environments, said Brig. Gen. Christian Wortman, head of the Warfighting Lab.
"We can use manned-unmanned teaming and unmanned systems to take on some of the most dangerous tasks that Marines are executing in that kind of an urban environment," he said.