HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. — Many drones enter. One drone leaves.
That might be the gist of a new rapid prototyping event called “ThunderDrone,” where small unmanned aerial vehicles duke it out in a series of challenges. On Wednesday, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson announced the service’s participation in the experiment, which is hosted by SOFWERX.
“In two months, we’re going to have a big competition. They’ve rented out a big warehouse,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said during a Wednesday speech at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.
“It’s a rapid prototyping event, and basically it’s to investigate swarms and platforms and effects and data science of small unmanned aerial vehicles. There’s even one [event] that says, ‘Ok, bring your stuff, we’ll see who the last drone standing is.’”
The experiment gets its name from the third installment in the Mad Max film franchise, which saw the titular character engage in gladiatorial combat in a steel cage arena named Thunderdome.
The location of ThunderDrone seems to be a little bit more upscale: “a brand new state-of-the-art 7,000 [square foot] indoor drone test range for drone experimentation, prototyping, and testing,” SOFWERX stated on its website.
SOFWERX is a collaboration between Special Operations Command [USSOCOM] and Doolittle Institute, a group that links the Pentagon with innovative companies and academia that don’t often do business with the department. It plans to hold a ThunderDrone technology exhibition in early September, with other events following in the weeks afterward. The experiment will conclude with a “prototype rodeo.”
Over the course of the experiment, participants will have the chance to build new UAVs, demonstrate swarming capabilities, show off novel kinetic or nonkinetic effects, and gather data about how best to sustain drones throughout their lifecycle. Although there doesn’t seem to be a cash prize associated with the event, SOFWERX notes that participants will have access to the Defense Department’s acquisition community.
Future development money could also be on the line if participants create especially promising technology.
“Using [special operations forces] and USSOCOM feedback, ThunderDrone may also pick and fund a select few technologies for further development following the RPE [rapid prototyping experiment],” SOFWERX said.
The exact nature of the Air Force’s participation in ThunderDrone is still yet to be determined.
“We’re still working on the details and we’ll get back to you on that one later,” said Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the service‘s top uniformed acquisition official.
Air Force officials at Holloman on Wednesday said ThunderDrone is just one example of the work the service is doing to inject more innovation into developing tech. Gen. Mike Holmes, head of Air Combat Command, noted that the service has recently became the exclusive sponsor of the Drone Racing League finals.
“As it goes through, we’re looking for a venue where we can hold a race on an Air Force facility,” he said. “They’re looking for venues that are colorful and attractive on television, and we’ve got some of those. So I think it all comes together to an Air Force that is really interested in doing things differently.”
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.