Industry News Details

U.S. To Equip MQ-9 Reaper Drones With Artificial Intelligence Posted on : Dec 12 - 2020

The Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center has awarded a $93.3 million contract to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI), makers of the MQ-9 Reaper, to equip the drone with new AI technology. The aim is for the Reaper to be able to carry out autonomous flight, decide where to direct its battery of sensors, and to recognize objects on the ground. The contract, announced at the end of last month, builds on a successful test earlier this year.

In some ways this is not a major development, more of an incremental step using existing technology. What makes it significant is the drone that is being equipped, and what it will be able to do afterwards.

Military drones are notoriously backward when it comes to on-board intelligence, even compared to their tiny cousins in the consumer world. You can buy a drone like the SkyDio 2 which can carry out a complete flight on its own, taking off and locking on to the owner to autonomously shoot video of them while they surf, ski or skateboard, then landing automatically afterwards. By contrast, military drones need a remote pilot to take off and land, and a payload operator to point the cameras and other sensors at the target (not to mention launching missiles).

The biggest drone manpower requirement is PED — processing, exploitation and dissemination – the teams of analysts who look through hours and hours of high-resolution video, trying to determine whether people on the ground are mending a pothole or planting an IED, whether someone is carrying a mortar tube, an RPG  or just a length of pipe, and similar challenges. This is something AI, especially machine learning, might help with.

In September, the Air Force announced that General Atomics had flown a Reaper fitted with a new device known as an Agile Condor pod under its wing for the first time.

Agile Condor, which has been in development by the Air Force Research Laboratory for some years, is effectively a flying supercomputer – ‘high-performance embedded computing ‘ — optimized for artificial intelligence applications. Built by SRC Inc, it packs the maximum computing capacity into the minimum space, with the lowest possible power requirements. Its modular architecture is built around machine learning (suggesting a lot of GPUs or other processors optimized for parallel processing) and the makers anticipate upgrades to neuromorphic computing hardware which mimics the human brain. View More