The Air Force's “ThunderDrone” Might Be a Drone Demolition Derby 


The Air Force and its civilian contractors have “rented out a big warehouse,” and are planning a vaguely-described competition called “ThunderDrone” in early September. Details are scarce, but it certainly sounds like the Air Force has a giant warehouse in Tampa where it’s about to host a huge military drone demolition derby.

On Wednesday, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told reporters the Air Force would participate in an upcoming competition called “ThunderDrone,” organized by a military tech development group called 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 on Wednesday during a speech before the Air Force’s “Light Attack Experiment” at Holloman Air Force Base, which was reported by Colin Clark at Breaking Defense. “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.’”

“Bring your stuff, we’ll see who the last drone standing,” sure sounds like the Air Force is doing its own version of DroneClash, the upcoming Dutch competition that’s like BattleBots in mid-air and is planned for early November.

But it could be more mundane. Clark writes that he pestered several Air Force officials about it, but they all deferred questions to Wilson. Inverse reached out to the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), which Clark reports is running the show, for more info (mostly to ask if there would be drone-on-drone combat), and we’ll update this post if we hear back.

SOFWERX’s website has a bit more information.

SOFWERX invites SOF Warfighters, Interagency Partners, and select contributors from Industry and Academia to participate in ThunderDrone, a focused technology innovation effort related to drones (sea, land, air, and space), tactical swarms, payloads (kinetic/non-kinetic), and their associated data science applications for the Special Operations community. ThunderDrone will be hosting in a brand new state-of-the-art 7,000 sq ft indoor drone test range for drone experimentation, prototyping, and testing open to all tech innovation partners.

The most telling line there is perhaps the mention of “tactical swarms.” DARPA, the Department of Defense’s biggest research and development arm, has been heavily experimenting with drone swarm technology — like Perdix’s micro-drones dropped from fighter planes — as well as ways to combat it. For an example, check out the Raytheon video above of a drone-swarm killing cannon.

As autonomous technology improves, small-size weaponized drones will be able to achieve much higher levels of in-air coordination. Essentially, SOFWERX’s description of ThunderDrone is pretty open — we could expect to see drone swarms, kamikaze drones with kinetic or nonkinetic payloads (stuff that goes boom or stuff that doesn’t), and all kinds of other technology. Again, if SOCOM tells us more, we’ll be back to update the post. Until then, we’ll have to wait until news of the first tech expo starts to come out on September 5, according to the SOFWERX site.