DARPA announced this week that it had successfully demonstrated its new Mobile Force Protection (MFP) system, which can launch semi-autonomous interceptors that shoot kinetic “streamers” at enemy drones in order to clog their propellers or rotors and bring them to the ground. In addition, DARPA’s announcement stated that “other non-kinetic techniques were developed and demoed.” To find out more about the MFP anti-drone system and what these other techniques were, The War Zone spoke with Dr. Greg Avicola of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, who serves as Program Manager for the Mobile Force Protection program. Avicola revealed previously unreleased details about the MFP system, including the fact that it has been demonstrated using Lockheed Martin’s MORFIUS, another counter-drone interceptor that uses a high-power microwave directed energy weapon to defeat drone swarms.
After our initial report on MFP, we still had additional questions, including about just how autonomous the nature of the anti-drone system is. While some of those details still cannot be shared, Avicola said there’s a human operator in the loop to provide guidance to the system overall, but the goal is to design a system that can handle a large number of incoming drone threats at once.
“For that, you need some level of autonomy to sort out everything it’s looking at and make recommendations on what to engage and how fast to engage them” Avicola told us.
To accomplish this, the system uses a DARPA-developed “decision engine” to classify potential threats, form a “local engagement picture” of the surrounding airspace, and then make recommendations to the human operator about deploying its interceptors. “It’s been trained to look at sensor data and ascertain based upon the characteristics of what it’s seeing what it thinks things are and what the probability is of various things are being drones or not drones and then provide recommendations to the operator.”
While Avicola couldn’t share specific details about what that decision engine entails, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are usually associated with this kind of terminology, and DARPA has built similar systems leveraging those technologies in the past.
Avicola told us that the demonstration system possessed six interceptor launch tubes powered by compressed air pneumatic ejector systems, but that a future system could be scaled up or down based on different users’ needs. “In principle the number of tubes that you bring with you is really for a future acquisition system. If they were to take this concept and build it out into an acquisition system, that number could be variable based on the actual needs of the surrogates and what they think their requirements are.”
“Obviously, carrying more requires bigger vehicles.” While the Humvee in the demonstration “comfortably” carried six interceptor tubes, Avicola said the number of tubes for that particular form of the Humvee-mounted system could also be increased in the future.
Avicola said that because its size, weight, and power requirements are designed to be small, it could be deployed inside of modular containers, aboard ships, or deployed around installations, including forward operating bases. Still, the system was primarily designed to be mobile and capable of operating on rough terrain.
“It can get jostled around, it can take bumps, and the sensor systems still operate and the system holds together,” Avicola said. “That was one of the goals at the beginning of the program, to build something that was [not only] mobile, but also mobile in the sense of unprepared roads.”
The press release on MFP that DARPA put out earlier this week mentioned only one interceptor specifically, the CUGAR – it’s unclear what this acronym stands for – for which Dynetics performed system integration. Dynetics ordered dual-rotor drones similar to those seen in DARPA’s recent demonstration last year in order to “develop new payload systems that will provide additional capabilities for customers in the defense and intelligence communities.” Avicola told us that another drone interceptor was tested in the MFP demonstrations, as well. This was the Lockheed Martin’s Mobile Radio Frequency-Integrated Unmanned Aerial Systems Suppressor, or MORFIUS.
“We took their existing product and basically contracted them to Dynetics to make some mods to integrate it with our system,” Avicola told us, adding that “They had a pretty interesting solution.”
Lockheed Martin describes MORFIUS as a tube-launched, “reusable, high-power microwave-based interceptor for C-UAS and C-swarm scenarios.” MORFIUS is based on the Agile-Launch Tactically Integrated Unmanned System-600 (ALTIUS-600) airframe designed by Area-I, a company that was recently acquired by Anduril Industries. It is claimed to be capable of defeating multiple threats simultaneously in a single attack using high-power microwaves (HPM). HPM are a form of directed energy weaponry which are capable of disrupting or even destroying electronics inside of drones or weapon systems, literally frying their circuitry from the inside out when powerful enough. It’s not immediately clear just how powerful the HPM system in the MORFIUS drones is, but the fact that a drone of its size can deploy a high-power microwave system at all is exciting on its own.