The UK's Ministry of Defence has £900,000 for any companies willing to supply it with weaponised drones capable of flitting around “urban environments” and even poking their electronic noses inside shopping centres and private houses.
Positioned as three "challenges" for industry to overcome, the MoD hopes to attract drone companies that won't worry about fitting "lethal payloads" to their craft.
"Commercially available small UAS [unmanned air systems – military-speak for drones] have already been used overseas, by forces hostile to UK interests, to deploy cheap, low-observable, armed capability across the battlefield," said the MoD on its competition tender webpage. "The UK therefore wishes to advance military capability through tactical weaponised UAS, specifically to reduce threat to life for UK forces operating in urban areas."
Challenge 1 is "the development of an optimised Unmanned Air System suitable for use in urban environments", while challenge 2 consists of developing some kind of Terminator-style weapons fit (or possibly a bomb) to be attached to the result of challenge 1.
Challenge 3, as can probably be guessed, consists of merging challenges 1 and 2 to produce a drone that can reliably fly around cities without bumping into buildings – supposedly while bumping off Her Majesty's enemies. Key to winning the challenges is ensuring one's drone is unfazed by "high obstacles, urban canyons and enclosed spaces" as well as "a complex electromagnetic environment."
"We are looking for ideas that reduce the mental strain on operators and to improve performance – but solutions must ensure that they remain under full human control at all times," added the Ministry's Defence and Security Accelerator. The £900k pot is divided into £150k lots, with no single "solution" being eligible for more than £150k at a time.
Military thinking on drones appears to have evolved from making drone-zapping laser weapons to arming one's own drones and finally building and deploying them, as yesterday's announcement shows – though MoD interest in anti-drone systems is still present.
Unlike in the US, where companies making drones tend to be offshoots of larger tech firms and therefore vulnerable to things like employees from other departments kicking off at the weaponisation of their ideas, companies bidding for UK small military drone work tend to be small and specialised in their fields – or fully paid-up members of the military-industrial complex, as Dwight Eisenhower once described it. ®