The Pentagon, concerned about the danger that small, armed drones pose to U.S. troops, is moving forward with a project that looks beyond remote-control aircraft used by the Islamic State to an even more complex problem: an aerial raid of autonomous suicide bombers.
The unmanned bombers have not yet appeared in combat, but defense officials already are researching how to stop them. Laden with explosives or other dangerous materials, they would operate by crashing into U.S. troops in a combat zone and would not be as easy to detect as existing drones used by the Islamic State, because they would not rely on radio frequencies for remote controlling. Instead, they would be programmed to carry out a specific mission, making them especially hard to see coming. Right now, the best way of detecting that there is an unmanned airplane is by listening for that radio signal. Once drones stop emitting that radio signal, they're going to get a lot harder to find.
The effort to stop the aircraft is known as the Mobile Force Protection Program and is overseen by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which examines ways that technology can help the U.S. military. DARPA anticipates awarding contracts within weeks for the first of three phases of testing and research.
Early stages of the research were launched in October with a solicitation to industry, and final proposals for the first phase are due in January. The program is focused specifically on going beyond using electronic jamming to stop unmanned planes and helicopters of to 200 pounds.
The effort comes as the U.S. military more broadly examines an array of ways to take out potential enemy drones.
The new DARPA project countering autonomous drones acknowledges those concerns but specifically forbids any option that could cause harm to U.S. troops or civilians as incoming drones are engaged. The prohibited options include high-powered directed-energy weapons, high-caliber weapons with "uncontrolled projectile trajectories," live animals and anything that does not fit on a tactical vehicle such as a Humvee or on a small naval Riverine craft.
See related DARPA announcement, http://www.darpa.mil/news-events/2016-08-11.