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Military awarding $600,000 in 'Game of Drones' to help combat unmanned enemy aircraft

Islamic State drones at one of the jihadi group's installations in Mosul. [Combating Terrorism Center, U.S. Military Academy]
Published Dec. 19, 2017

TAMPA — Do you have a plan to defeat small drones?

Do you want to win money with that idea?

If you answered yes to both, then U.S. Special Operations Command wants you to take part in the "Game of Drones" contest, which offers more than $600,000 in prize money to help find the best ways of countering small drones that threaten U.S. and allied forces.

The contest, to be held in June in Nevada, is sponsored by SOCom, along with two other organizations: Afwerx, an Air Force technology incubator, and the Pentagon's Strategic Capabilities Office.

It all kicks off locally at the Sofwerx incubator in Ybor City, site of the second ThunderDrone Rapid Prototyping Event next month.

"ThunderDrone has particular interest in those solutions that provide hard-kills," according to the Sofwerx website, "but will also assess all new, novel, and provocative technologies."

The key technologies sought, the website says, include the capability to function autonomously, discriminate among targets and engage a number of targets.

"The event is looking to discover the best of the breed," Sofwerx said.

Sofwerx is leading a collaboration among commandos, interagency partners and select contributors from industry and academia to bring drones and other tools to the special operations community.

An earlier event, called the ThunderDrone Tech Rodeo, was dubbed the first of its kind in developing drone technology advantages for troops. It was held at the Sofwerx center in November and attracted about 30 teams, who showed off their technology to an audience that included commandos and SOCom purchasing officials.

One technology showcased was an autonomous drone called the Hive Mind Nova. Made by Shield AI and equipped with artificial intelligence, it wended its way through twists and turns in a mock building set up inside the Sofwerx center while avoiding objects, detecting human forms and the dead spaces where they can hide, even operating in the dark.

The event was deemed a success by ThunderDrone officials, who said it helped foster interactions that will ultimately help place advanced drone capabilities into the hands of troops.

"All of this is very exciting," John Coglianese, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who now runs the ThunderDrone project, said during the initial event.

Though the U.S. ruled the skies for more than a decade when it came to weaponized drones, the need to counter them is no longer hypothetical.

Last year, for example, the Iraqi offensive against the so-called Islamic State in Mosul "almost came to a screeching halt" because of weaponized drones worth just $2,000 or so each, according to Army Gen. Raymond A. "Tony" Thomas III, head of U.S. Special Operations Command.

At one point, Thomas said, there were 12 enemy drones — "killer bees," he called them — "dropping 40mm nuggets. It was an immediate challenge."

Jihadis are just a segment of the U.S. adversaries learning to use drones.

Russian drones dropped thermite grenades — generating a massive amount of heat — on a Ukrainian ammunition dump and forced the evacuation of 30,000 people, the British newspaper Daily Mail reported.

Those who answer the call for help with drone technology don't have to develop a complete solution, according to Sofwerx. Teaming and partnerships are highly encouraged.

The deadline for submitting a white paper is Jan. 5.

After reviewing all submissions, the ThunderDrone team will invite selected participants to demonstrate their ideas during the Tech Expo at the Sofwerx center from Jan. 29 to Feb. 1.

After that, there will be another round of cuts. Those still in the running will be asked to show their prototypes at an outdoor range sometime between March and April. Specific dates and a location are still being worked out.

"This will provide an opportunity for the teams to prove the performance and maturity of their hardware," according to Sofwerx.

Based on these performances, top participants will be invited to compete for the cash prizes at the Game of Drones Rapid Prototype Event III, scheduled for June at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

More information is available at (813) 693-5599, ext. 121, or at ThunderDrone@sofwerx.org.

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or
(813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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