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Tale of two drones: ISIS wreaked havoc cheaply, Tampa meeting showcases state of the art

TAMPA — About six months ago, the Iraqi offensive against the so-called Islamic State in Mosul "almost came to a screeching halt," the head of U.S. Special Operations Command told an industry conference Tuesday at the Tampa Convention Center.

The problem?

The jihadi group gained tactical air superiority by taking commercially available drones worth about $2,000 each — a far cry from the state-of-the-art models drawing oohs and aahs down the hall from the commander's speech — and attaching large-caliber weapons to them.

"In the span of 24 hours, there were 70 drones in the air," said Army Gen. Raymond A. "Tony" Thomas III, the SOCom commander.

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

Special operations and conventional forces responded, in part, by breaking down the Islamic State networks that enabled jihadis to deploy their simple drones — four-prop quad-copters like the kind you see hobbyists flying around Tampa.

Still, there was no time for a victory lap, Thomas said.

"They are not defeated. I would never sleep on this enemy, ever. They will adapt and figure out another way to come at us. They had a momentary advantage that we had to rectify."

Thomas, speaking to the annual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference, also addressed the sharing of information with partners in the battle against ISIS — a topic that put President Donald Trump on the spot this week as he fielded questions about whether he provided Russians with intelligence gathered by a U.S. ally.

Thomas' take: "We are actually sharing information like we have never before."

He credited James Clapper, former director of national intelligence, with breaking down barriers: "We are crushing through obstacles as we find them out there."

Thomas spoke to a packed house Tuesday, but the real stars of the annual industry conference are out on the exhibition floor — the drones, counter-drone technology and other tech wonders displayed by more than 400 companies occupying 900 booths.

One popular product this year is the Swiss army knife of drones — a portable model that can lift more than 25 pounds above its own weight, chase bad guys through the woods, shoot lethal and nonlethal projectiles, find and explode roadside bombs, and fight off other drones.

The Bullray Amphibious drone is made in Sarasota by Rapid Composites.

Company president Alan Taylor won't say how many of the drones his company has produced or who's buying them, other than "the military."

But he's eager to talk about the drone's capabilities.

The Bullray has a pneumatic launcher that fires a nonlethal projectile at 450 feet per second, fast enough to incapacitate a target through sheer kinetic energy. The projectiles can also be armed with pepper spray.

The drone can fly for 20 to 30 minutes at time, depending on its load, and an operator can carry it by hand.

An adaptable rail system enables the drone to carry an array of weapons or sensors, including some that "sniff out" and explode roadside bombs. It can carry electronic warfare weapons to jam other drones. And its weapons systems can wipe out adversary drones.

What's more, the Bullray can land and take off on the water, Taylor said.

The Special Operations Forces Industry Conference — held each year in Tampa, home of SOCom's headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base — is key to the success of Taylor's business, he said.

"We do about half our business as a result of SOFIC," Taylor said, using the acronym for the convention.

His customers are spending far more than the $2,000 or so ISIS dropped on each of the drones that confounded SOCom at Mosul.

The price tag on a Bullray: $150,000 to $250,000.

Meanwhile, SOCom is working to create its own drone technology research effort, said James "Hondo" Geurts, the command's acquisition chief.

Similar to the Sofwerx effort SOCom launched in Ybor City, where the command collaborates with industry and academia outside MacDill, the new "drone­werx" will examine technological capabilities available now and projected for the future, Geurts said.

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com. Follow @haltman.

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