• Artificial intelligence and machine learning are critical for countering small unmanned aircraft systems, Army officials say. Credit: U.S. Army photo/Spc. Derek Mustard
     Artificial intelligence and machine learning are critical for countering small unmanned aircraft systems, Army officials say. Credit: U.S. Army photo/Spc. Derek Mustard

AI/ML Critical to Army Strategy to Counter Small UAS

October 15, 2020
By George I. Seffers
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The strategy could soon get departmental approval.


The U.S. Army’s joint strategy document for countering small unmanned aerial systems should be headed soon to the Secretary of Defense for approval, Army officials say, and artificial intelligence and machine learning are crucial to the vision.

During a telephone discussion with reporters, Maj. Gen. Sean Gainey, USA, director of the Joint Counter-Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office and director of fires, G-3/5/7, described artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) as “critical” to the military’s efforts to counter unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

The Army has been named the executive agent for joint efforts to counter the small drones, which are categorized as being in groups one, two and three. Small, inexpensive drones can be easily purchased and used against U.S. forces in a number of ways. For example, ISIS used the systems to carry explosives. They also can be used to jam communications signals or for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance purposes. They also pose a threat within the United States from people who fly them too close to aircraft or in or near restricted areas.

“We see the threat continue to proliferate in the [U.S. Central Command area of responsibility], and now we’re starting to see more use globally and even in the homeland,” Gen. Gainey said. “We see two sets of challenges here. We have what we view as a threat, a cheap tool for an adversary to use as a threat, to potentially modify it, weaponize it or just use it for [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance]. But we also have the challenge of the hazard piece, like in the homeland where maybe a hobbyist out there flying it may come around air space or a restricted location, and we have to be able to counter that also.”

Col. Marc Pelini, USA, division chief for capabilities and requirements within the Joint Counter-UAS Office, said AI and ML can help counter-UAS systems in multiple ways. “I view it as doing three things to reduce the operator stress in the decision-making process. First, we’re looking at putting in the requirements document a broad requirement to speed up the system’s decision making process … in order to increase the operator’s response and reaction timeline, to increase the system’s confidence by using technology to reduce false alarms…and then the last one is to reduce complexity.”

The services likely will procure near-term systems while working on more advanced systems for the future. “We’re well on the path to continue to build upon the lessons and the capabilities that we’ve already fielded,” Col. Pelini said.

Systems for dealing with small UAS threats also will likely have a single controller that any military member can use. The common controller also will work for multiple kinds of counter-UAS systems, including detection, electronic warfare and “defeat” systems.

“The way the services want to move forward with counter-UAS is that they want a military specialty-agnostic capability that basically a soldier, sailor, airmen or Marine can pick up and intuitively operate, so everyone is a counter-UAS operator,” Gen. Gainey told reporters.

But the service also is considering the possibility of allowing contractors to provide counter-UAS services. “It’s a componentized menu of options based on the systems we down selected and the systems we are looking at potentially in the future. We’re also looking at counter-UAS as a service where companies could potentially come in and provide that service for an installation,” Gen. Gainey said. “Ultimately, our goal is to align existing and future counter-UAS solutions to best address the warfighter needs while applying resources more efficiently.”

The counter-small UAS document that should soon be headed to the secretary of defense for approval. Nicole Thomas, division chief for strategy and policy within the Joint Counter-UAS Office, says its focus is on the years 2023-2027 because it is tied to the budget planning cycle known as the program objective memorandum.

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