Volunteers can change the world. Volunteer airmen in the Air Force have joined together to figure out how the Air Force could use small store-bought drones to their advantage in Qatar.
For a number of years, the Air Force has fought against weaponized quadcopters in the Middle East. The new unit, “Task Force 99” is based out of Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. The team’s commander had this to say: “The ability to protect local populations and our bases against small [unmanned aerial systems] is very important,” said Lt. Col. Erin Brilla, the team’s commander. “[How] can we … turn that narrative around and impose dilemmas in the other direction?”
The Small Drone Advantage
The children’s toy can be manipulated to fit the needs of the U.S. military. Air Force Times reports that these lightweight drones are far less sophisticated than the Air Force’s remotely piloted MQ-9 Reaper or RQ-4 Global Hawk. But they can still wreak havoc when outfitted with cameras, radio jammers or explosives, or if they get sucked into and destroy a jet engine. Their first attempt involved an electronic warfare tool that can jump radio frequencies and transmit audio or video over those channels, said Capt. Barrett Kopel, the group’s cyber and systems integration chief. It was cobbled together using “pieces that you would find if you were to go into an old-school RadioShack” and code they found online, Kopel said.
The Task Force 99 is tinkering with the drones to see if they can interupt nearby frequencies. If succsful, this could open the Pandora’s Box of possibilities.
“Our first success story, really, is generating and proving that we can take commercial off-the-shelf software, commercial off-the-shelf hardware, and … apply it towards an operational capability,” Capt. Barrett Kopel said.
Brilla said the group has its first small drone ready to collect unclassified images but needs approval from the Qatari government to fly near the base. “It provides orthomosaic and 3D modeling imagery capabilities to look at facilities or landscapes that we’ve previously not been able to access … due to [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance resource] allocation and competing intelligence requirements,” said Capt. Raymond Revell, the group’s intelligence chief. An orthomosaic, according to the web site dronegenuity.com, is “like Google Earth, but way sharper. It is a large, map-quality image with high detail and resolution made by combining many smaller images called orthophotos.”
The Pentagon’s limited inventory of intelligence assets don’t have the time or bandwidth to map out everything. Drones can help fill that gap so troops can better understand the land around them.
“The biggest takeaway is how cheap these UASs are, because you can employ a number of them for very low cost, and they’re attritable, so you don’t really care if you lose them or not,” Revell said of store-bought drones, which typically retail for less than $1,500. “If you do lose them, whatever capability that your adversary has used to take down that drone likely was slightly more expensive than you fielding that drone in the first place.”