The world is becoming saturated with UAVs, and the technology that underpins these systems is only expected to become more sophisticated.
Next-generation UAV technology (UAVs 4.0) now in development includes:
- Additive manufacturing for bulk production
- Advanced materials for enhanced stealth and smaller size
- Energy storage, solar powered systems and satellite-based communications
- Automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning
Advances in AI (Artificial Intelligence) and machine learning could lead to small UAVs that communicate with each other as a cognitive hive mind with the capability to swarm targets, leaving kinetic air defenses with too many targets to engage.
At the same time, advances in nanotechnology could lead to UAVs that mimic birds or insects, such as the Black Hornet, which could be capable of stealthy, close-quarter audio, video and possibly even DNA-sample intelligence collection. More disruptively, these nano-UAVs could engage in highly targeted killings through the injection of poison or self-destruction.
Both software and hardware are at the core of UAVs 4.0 but the physical limitations inherent in hardware do not apply to software, which is more diffuse and rapidly adaptable: Programming UAVs to remain on a “leash,” following warfighters wherever they go, or with the ability to loiter over a designated area and automatically find, fix and engage threats on their own, has tactical implications for war, particularly in the urban battlefield of the future replete with infrastructure that provides concealment for enemy forces.
Last but not least: The introduction of armed UAVs permanently altered the modern battlefield, and new technological advances in UAV technology (UAV 4.0) could do it again: from advanced materials that allow UAVs to fly, roll, run or swim in less forgiving environments, to thinking software than makes them more independent, to stealth technology that renders them even less visible. On the positive side, the intelligence that UAVs provide helps focus lethality on the intended target and limit the risk of civilian casualties and friendly fire incidents. But on the negative side, non-state actors will be able to employ them as well, giving insurgents or terrorists an outsized advantage: “While small drones can be a hazard domestically, their threat to the warfighter is growing as well. Footage of weaponized drones being used by ISIS provides a disturbing glimpse into the group’s Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs), and the future of asymmetric warfare. We have seen ISIS-controlled drones drop precision bombs on compounds, destroy armor and kill soldiers. And as dangerous as they are now, the lethality of drones will only increase as other nations and non-state actors refine their technology and TTPs.” (Deborah Lee James, former Secretary of the U.S. Air Force)