Pentagon's Geek Squad Concocts Self-Driving Boats, Drone Swarms

  • Technology from smartphones, 3D printers used for innovation
  • Secretary Carter discusses Strategic Capabilities Office

Self-driving boats that network with each other, swarms of micro-drones that a soldier can toss into the air and small bombs outfitted with technology borrowed from smartphones. They’re all among inventions being concocted by a secretive Pentagon office.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who has a Ph.D. in physics, boasted in a speech Tuesday about the Strategic Capabilities Office that he created in 2012, when he was deputy secretary. Its job is to re-imagine existing Defense Department, intelligence agency and commercial systems “by giving them new roles and game-changing capabilities to confound potential opponents,” he said.

Adding to the project’s mystique, Carter called it “an office that we don’t often talk about,” and told the Economic Club of Washington that he was disclosing some of its innovations for the first time. Among the war-fighting gadgets, as Carter described them:

* Swarms of micro-drones “that are really fast and resilient.” He said they can be “kicked out the back of a fighter jet moving at Mach 0.9” or “thrown into the air by a soldier in the middle of the Iraqi desert.” The drones are being made with the help of commercial components and 3D printing.

* Giving the military’s Small Diameter Bomb more advanced targeting capability by adding on “the same kinds of micro-cameras and sensors that are littered through our smartphones and everything today.”

* Turning older weapons, such as the five-inch guns on every Navy destroyer, into a missile defense system by equipping them with “hypervelocity smart projectiles.”

* Self-driving boats that “can network together to do all kinds of missions, from fleet defense to close-in surveillance, without putting soldiers at risk.”

* Upgrading an older plane into an “arsenal plane” that turns it into a “launch pad for all kinds of different conventional payloads,” networked with advanced aircraft equipped with sensors and targeting capabilities.

Carter made no claims about how soon these innovations will be deployed, and he offered no promises that they would supplant costlier weapons systems.

Some of the projects listed by Carter “could provide significant combat capabilities in the future,” said Robert Levinson, the senior defense analyst with Bloomberg Government. “However, as is always the case, transitioning a science project to an affordable, reliable combat system is often a difficult, lengthy and expensive proposition. So it remains to be seen if any of these projects will actually pay off in the long run.”

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