To Scale Drone Tech Defence Innovation Unit Seeks Modular Test Platform

Technology

Washington: As the Pentagon prepares to field thousands of autonomous systems in the coming years, its commercial innovation hub is seeking a modular test platform that it could use to validate payloads, sensors and other technology.

The Defence Innovation Unit wants a system that could be ready for its first flight test within seven months, reach a range of 926 kilometres, and deliver a kinetic payload, it said in a  notice.

“The objective is to demonstrate an aerial platform that prioritises affordability and distributed mass production,” it said. “Multiple vehicle types may be selected for prototyping and multiple variants may be developed following a successful initial flight test. Designs that enable geographically distributed, scalable manufacturing with minimal reliance on specialised tooling and test equipment are preferred.”

The notice comes as the Pentagon embarks on an ambitious plan to change the way it buys high-need capabilities to counter China’s military advantage. Through the first instantiation of the effort, dubbed Replicator, the department wants to significantly scale up production of autonomous systems to deliver thousands of small platforms across multiple domains over the next 18 to 24 months.

Deputy Defence Secretary Kathleen Hicks announced the effort in late August, saying the plan is to leverage existing programs and, at least initially, existing funding streams.

While not explicitly tied to Replicator, DIU’s solicitation emphasizes the Pentagon’s need for an open-architecture platform that can test, integrate and qualify a range of subsystems and materials without the “exquisite components” and “labour-intensive manufacturing” that slow down existing production processes.

“The Department of Defence replenishment rates for unmanned aerial delivery vehicles are neither capable of meeting surge demand nor achieving affordable mass,” the notice states. “Narrow supply chains, proprietary data and locked designs result in a lengthy timeline to transition new technology into usable capability and limit production and replenishment rates.”

A DIU spokesman did not immediately respond to questions about the effort’s links to Replicator.

Details on how the Pentagon will execute the program have, so far, been slim. The Deputy’s Innovation Steering Group, established in 2021 and co-chaired by Hicks and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Christopher Grady, will oversee Replicator with support from DIU Director Doug Beck.

DISG held a quarterly meeting September 28, and according to Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon, Replicator was on the agenda.

“The purpose of the inaugural meeting was to ensure familiarisation with the initiative across the Pentagon and military services, make clear the tasks and directions for execution, offer an opportunity to ask questions and provide input to support the future direction for Replicator,” Pahon said in an October 2 statement.