WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force’s future model for developing and acquiring unmanned aerial vehicles will likely be much different than how it has conceptualized drones in the past, with less emphasis on the platform and sensors and more attention to the data a UAV collects and how it is analyzed and dispersed, one of the service’s top intelligence officials said Tuesday.

For the most part, Air Force officials have kept mum about future UAV platforms since the cancellation of the MQ-X program earlier this decade. However, Kenneth Bray, acting associate deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, said the service has done a fair amount of behind-the-scenes thinking on the topic over the past three to four years.

“We’re starting to think not from the sensor of from the platform, we’re starting to think from the data and decide, is it even collecting the right size data, or do I need to have different sensors on those platforms?” he said. “Are those platforms even relevant anymore or do I need a different platform because what I need is this type of data, and only this type of platform can get me that type of data? That is how we’re going to change our thinking.”

Over the past decade, the Air Force has grappled with how best to deal with the influx of intelligence available to it via space assets, manned and unmanned aircraft and even on public spaces like social media.

Bray is expected to speak more about the future of Air Force UAVs during a panel on unmanned vehicles at the Defense News conference on Sept. 6. However, during a Sept. 5 interview, he stressed that the service is moving away from a platform-centric approach and towards seeing UAVs as a tool to capture data.

The service is currently pursuing multiple efforts aimed at incorporating Big Data analytics and automation into its ISR enterprise. With that comes questions as to how to use that technology so that operators of unmanned platforms can more quickly make decisions and send information to the intelligence community.

While that will require a huge shift from some in the service and defense industry who tend to prioritize the air vehicle, the Air Force first widely used UAV — the MQ-1 Predator manufactured by General Atomics — was spawned from an ethos that prized the collection and digestion of good data, Bray said.

With the Predator, “we knew exactly what type of data we wanted to go after, and so we didn’t build the world’s best sensor, we built a specific sensor to go onto those aircraft to get exactly what we wanted and match it up with video information,” he said. Then, when the MQ-1 no longer was meeting mission requirements, the Air Force shifted to the MQ-9 Reaper, a more advanced version of the drone that has longer endurance, better sensors and more weapons.

Those programs proved that the service could use agile acquisition methodologies to quickly field inexpensive technologies that are effective at a specific mission.

But, he added, “you’ve got to understand your problem. This is like using the right tool in a tool shop. When you need a hammer, you don’t use a screw driver, and sometimes you have to go make a new tool you don’t have in order to do the job you’re going to do.”

So what does that mean for future Air Force UAVs?

Current Air Force drones — which the service calls remotely piloted vehicles or RPAS — are optimized for counterinsurgency operations and missions in permissive environments. Bray said platforms like the Reaper and Global Hawk will likely be relevant for years to come against low-end threats.

However, the service won’t always be fighting in permissive environments, and will eventually need to be able to penetrate into areas that are “densely defended” by high-end adversaries and collect data.

“That’s the part that I can’t get into detail,” he said, noting that current Air Force plans, programs and budget outlays related to those activities are classified.

However, Bray hinted that the attributes of future UAVs would be primarily informed by that high-end environment, saying that once the Air Force had figured out how to keep eyes on “the bad people are on the battlefield,” it could begin thinking about the mixture of platforms it needs.

That won’t just include UAVs or manned assets like the U-2 spyplane, but will also combine intelligence from space and cyber domains as well, he noted.

It also could mean a greater use of artificial intelligence and automation — not in terms of letting a machine decide to deliver a weapon — but in the sense of using algorithms to help users pick out details from the imagery being collected or to spot trends. That can help operators figure out not only what they are seeing, but why it is there and what it is going to do, Bray said.

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.

More In Defense News Conference