US special operators are inviting these companies to the 'Thunderdrone'

It’s not just about air shows or conferences anymore for defense aerospace companies.

Firms are showcasing their goods for US military leaders outside the usual weapons buying process, facing off with one another to prove who has the best platform — and who could win the big contracts.

“We’re experimenting and innovating, and we’re doing it in new and faster ways,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said August 9 during a media day for the service’s “light attack experiment” at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, the most recent opportunity for plane-makers to strut their stuff.

A Beechcraft AT-6 experimental aircraft flies over White Sands Missile Range as part of USAF "light attack experiment." Photo by Ethan D Wagner.

A Beechcraft AT-6 experimental aircraft flies over White Sands Missile Range as part of USAF “light attack experiment.” Photo by Ethan D Wagner.

She also gave a sneak peek into the service’s plans for more rapid acquisition experiments in the future, including an upcoming drone battle dubbed, “Thunderdrone.”

Wilson said the service wants to look at drone swarm data and performance, and other ways small unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles can be used on the battlefield and beyond.

The Thunderdrone drone-battle event, to be held September 5 through November 3, will take place in a “state-of-the-art, 7,000 square-foot, indoor drone test range for drone experimentation, prototyping, and testing,” according to its host, Tampa-based SOFWERX.

SOFWERX is a partnership between US Special Operations Command and the Doolittle Institute, a rapid innovation office that works to bring service members collaborative solutions by connecting private companies with the Defense Department.

USMC photo by Sgt. Lucas Hopkins

USMC photo by Sgt. Lucas Hopkins

Thunderdrone will bring together defense, industry, and academia to test “drones (sea, land, air, and space), tactical swarms, payloads (kinetic/non-kinetic), and their associated data science applications for the Special Operations community,” SOFWERX says.

Part of the “rapid prototyping event” aims to apply innovative thinking to “existing or envisioned ?voids” warfighters may face and come up with solutions, the organization’s website says.

How a drone’s performance will be measured has not been disclosed, but the special operations community will give feedback, the site says.

In addition, “using SOF and USSOCOM feedback, Thunderdrone may also pick and fund a select few technologies for further development following the [rapid prototyping event],” SOFWERX says.

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