TAMPA, Fla. — U.S. Special Operations Command is launching a new effort to tackle drone and robotics technology hurdles rapidly, the same way it experiments with other capability problem sets through its SOFWERX model.
SOFWERX — which resides in a downtown Tampa warehouse — is an environment designed to allow industry, academia and individuals to interface in an unclassified setting where ideas and technology can converge in an experimental and collaborative way.
The Strategic Capabilities Office and USSOCOM recognized that the SOFWERX model — that brings diverse communities together, "from hackers to makers" — would work well when it comes to tackling some of the most challenging robotics and autonomous problem sets, James "Hondo" Geurts, the acquisition executive for Special Operations Forces Acquisitions, Technology and Logistics, told Defense News in an interview at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference on Tuesday.
While Geurts is still working on a name that reflects the plan to focus not just on unmanned aircraft systems but robotics as a whole, it is being called "DroneWerx" for now.
USSOCOM is embarking on the effort immediately and expects to be up and running in less than 90 days from now, Geurts said.
The focus will initially look at three lines of operations, Geurts said. One of those is how to achieve functional swarming, another line of effort will examine what is needed in a swarm such as sensors or weapons and the third line is how swarms might be employed.
"SOCOM’s direct linkage with our operators gives us the unique ability to rapidly leverage this commercial technology in new and important ways for our operators downrange," he said.
DroneWerx would also look to learn from and employ commercial drone technology, artificial intelligence, machine learning, among other capabilities such as survivability against threats, Geurts said during a speech at the show.
DroneWerx, he added, is about experimenting, "not about writing a [request for proposals] and 10 years from now selecting a contractor to build a SOCOM drone. It’s how do we work together and build scalable platforms."
The new effort comes at a time when adversaries are rapidly advancing drone and robotic capability.
"The threat is really changing, this explosion of commercial technology, of super-empowered commercial technology, of each individual technology path on an accelerated schedule," Geurts said. "When you start stacking accelerations on top of each other, pretty soon you’ve got autonomous swarms of drones with facial recognition attacking you on the battlefield and so how do you get out in front of that?"
And now even adversaries considered to previously lack any technical superiority whatsoever are showing growing savvy when it comes to adopting easy-to-get commercial technology and employing it on the battlefield.
USSOCOM Commander Gen. Raymond Thomas told conference goers Tuesday that the Islamic State group militants used commercially available drones armed with 40mm weapons strapped to them against U.S. and coalition forces fighting in Mosul just six months ago, which caused U.S. forces to scramble to quickly come back with a full array of capabilities to counter the threat.
And while the problem appears to be addressed in the fight in Mosul for now, Thomas said, "I would not go to sleep on the enemy."
Geurts added, USSOCOM continues to try to build capacity and capability to rapidly get after those types of problems and SOFWERX and DroneWerx is a way to come up with creative solutions quickly.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.