US Air Force Announces ThunderDrone: The Ultimate Game of Drones?

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thunderdrone us air force swarm drone battle
A small unmanned aerial vehicle built by service academy cadets.

What is ThunderDrone?

ThunderDrone. It sounds exciting, especially since the event motto is “Are you ready to rumble?” – But what’s it all about?

Long before drones were being used to capture sunsets, race and take selfies, they were instruments of war: Military tools for military purposes.

And that will probably never change. But developments in the consumer and commercial drone industries now mean that there’s a bigger pool to choose from for inspiration, technology and talent.

All of that and more is going to be on display at the US Air Force’s ThunderDrone event next month. We’re still not exactly sure what ThunderDrone – or to use its official title: The ThunderDrone Rapid Prototyping Event – will actually consist of, but it sounds like a lot of fun.

From what we can tell, the Air Force is going old school and putting on its very own Game of Drones. The event coming up next month will be hosted in a “state-of-the-art 7,000 square-foot indoor drone test range” in the Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa, Florida.

The Ultimate Game of Drones?

The ThunderDrone competition will put UAVs against each other in a head to head, “rumble-style experiment“. The idea is to gather data on drone operations and develop technologies for the future. In the advertising, it’s been described as being:

  • A high-intensity, short duration collision event designed to generate leaps in capabilities
  • Apply innovative thinking to existing or envisioned voids and create “proof of theory, proof of concepts”
  • Collaborative across all sectors – defense, industry and academia

So what is a collision event? We’re not sure, but judging from the fact that there is a focus on Swarms and Counter-drone technology, it sounds like it’ll be a combination of drone on drone action and an exploration of potential countermeasures.

And they’re looking for experts to get involved: According to National Defense, the organizers have put out a call for experienced multi-rotor and fixed-wing aircraft pilots who want to volunteer their time and skills as part of the ThunderDrone Squadron, “building, testing and flying prototype and proof of concept vehicles.”

Ready to rumble? – The Power of the Swarm

The aim of the event, which is being run by SOFWORX in partnership with the Doolittle Institute, is to rapidly prototype drone technology and encourage experimentation between U.S. Special Operations Command and members of non-traditional industry and academia.

Part of this experimentation will be looking into potential applications for Swarm technology and, just as importantly from a military perspective, how to stop it. Swarm technology has only really been used so far for entertainment purposes by companies like Intel. The military potential is frightening or exciting, depending on your point of view.

Gen. James “Mike” Holmes, Air Combat Command commander, thinks the ThunderDrone event is a great idea. “It all comes together with an Air Force that is really interested in doing things differently,” he said. Think of it as a military UAV audition.

Holmes noted that the service is involved in several unmanned system efforts. The Air Force is a sponsor of the Drone Racing League, a startup whose races are broadcast on ESPN, he said.

“We’re the exclusive sponsor in the finals as it goes through, and we’re looking for a venue where we can host a race on an Air Force facility,” he said. “They’re looking for venues that are colorful and attractive on television — we’ve got some of those.”

According to SOFWERX, Air Force officials at ThunderDrone may pick and fund a select few technologies for further development following the [rapid prototyping event].

Heather Ann Wilson, the United States Secretary of the Air Force, said that ThunderDrone could be “one of the wonderful ways to get young people engaged in the next generation of technology.”

“Bring your stuff,” she said. “Let’s see who the last drone standing is.”



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