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ThunderDrone: Best Name Ever, But What Is It?

Posted by Colin Clark on


DARPA’s Gremlins program concept

HOLLOMAN AFB: We first heard about ThunderDrone from Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, who told a mystified audience that the Air Force would take part in an event none of us had ever heard of.

“In two months, we’re going to have a big competition. They’ve rented out a big warehouse,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said here during her Wednesday speech kicking off the Light Attack Experiment. “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.’”

Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. photo

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson

Wilson obviously considers ThunderDrone another example of the service’s pursuit of disruptive and useful technologies. So we kept asking three and four-star generals at the Light Attack Experiment here, what is ThunderDrone? They all deferred to the secretary.

Luckily, the Internet revealed all. OK, at least a bit. It’s being managed by an organization called SOFWERX on behalf of Special Operations Command (SOCOM).

SOFWERX was created by the Doolittle Institute, a Florida nonprofit with a license to use Gen. Doolitle’s name. The five-year-old institute was clearly created to help SOCOM push the technology envelope “and find solutions to the toughest Science and Technology challenges while championing science, technology, engineering and mathematics education for all levels of society.” The goal of SOFWERX is “to assist with collaboration, innovation, prototyping and exploration with industry, labs and academic partners.” They’ve got two facilities in Tampa. One is a 10,000 sq. ft. facility “designed for collaboration, innovation and modest rapid prototyping,” and the other is a 4,000 sq. ft. “garage designed for rapid prototyping with modest collaboration and innovation capabilities.”

The material online says the “high-intensity, short-duration collision event” known as ThunderDrone (we can’t use the name often enough) focuses on swarm technologies. The drones they want to see will use modular payloads, capable of ISR, jamming and counter-drone activities. The final event on Nov. 1-3 will test the various contenders. It is, refreshingly, called a “prototype rodeo.”

I pinged Sofwerx, who are managing the event for Special Operations Command. They referred me to SOCOM, from whom we are eagerly awaiting a response.

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