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Task Force-99 leads change in drone development, employment

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Kylar Vermeulen
  • U.S. Air Forces Central Public Affairs

Shots ring out, a unit is pinned down in a firefight. The mountainous terrain and enemy fire make it difficult for personnel to exit the hot zone. Multiple casualties are in desperate need of medical attention. Broken radio chatter fills the air throughout the chaos.

MRAPs can’t make it through the hilly terrain and helicopters cannot land due to the severity of the ongoing fight. How can lifesaving aid be delivered to these casualties?

U.S. Air Forces Central said they may have an answer.

Task Force-99, alongside the Air Force’s Blue Horizon program and Titan Dynamics, a California-based company, assessed the capabilities of the first unmanned aerial system (UAS) developed using a new set of software that can conceptualize an airframe in minutes and 3D print the design to employ it in under 24 hours. This would revolutionize the process at which drones can be created and distributed to allied forces to support missions globally, according to the task force.

“The goal of our project was to be able to quickly design a fixed wing small UAS within minutes, build it within hours, be able to employ it in the same day, and do that in the field right at the point of need,” said Col. Dustin Thomas, a Fellow with Blue Horizons and team member of Project Black Phoenix.

The flight assessment took place March 15, 2024, at an undisclosed location within the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, after only a month of planning and preparation.

Early in February of 2024, planning began between TF-99, Blue Horizons and Titan Dynamics on the project that the task force says would normally take a group of engineers up to a week to complete and be ready for assembly and testing. Using new software engineered by Titan Dynamics, TF-99 and Blue Horizons were able to cut that time down to mere minutes.

Thanks to 3D printing, TF-99 highlighted that they can reduce the cost of producing a UAS of this size up to 95 percent. They do this by using a synthetic plastic that is cost efficient and lighter than metal and carbon fiber elements.

Though only in its alpha phase of assessment, the software is capable of virtually conceptualize any small airframe based on mission requirements input by the user. Weight, height, width, distance, speed – all factors a user is looking for can be precisely and quickly manufactured by 3D printers at the click of a button.

“We are creating a system that adapts aircraft to the effect you want to employ,” said Lt. Col. Peter Dyrud, a Fellow with Blue Horizons and team member of Project Black Phoenix. “We want to provide a system that puts in the warfighters’ hands the ability to create and really do something unique and specific to their mission.”

The day after the initial flight assessment, TF-99 tested a second UAS developed using the same software and 3D printers as the first version. This time, a different airframe modeled for different mission requirements was assessed. TF-99 was able to fly the UAS containing a mock first-aid care package over 30 miles to its simulated destination. The team designed, printed and flew this customized drone in under 48 hours.

Personnel involved with the project explained this method of quick manufacturing can be used in a combat scenario to support injured service members who may be hard to reach.

“Its’ payload agnostic,” said Lt. Col. Jordan Atkins, another Fellow with Blue Horizons and team member of Project Black Phoenix. “It could be anything that a lab, engineer, pilot, anything anyone comes up with—as long as you know the size of the payload and if it needs to be plugged into something on the plane. You put in the weight and then it can be built.”

With small UAS airframes shaping the future of how war on the ground and in the air may look like, no use is off the table. The CEO of Titan Dynamics, Mohammad Adib, said their goal is to ensure the products their software develops are able to account for multiple uses that may be utilized by the warfighter.

“Our vision is that you could build any kind of service that you need in the field,” Adib shared. “Any kind of ISR platforms, loitering munitions, communications, relocations, relays, mapping aircraft, you name it. It is capable of producing an airframe specific to whatever you may need.”

Senior Airman Gavin Gage, a software developer within TF-99, was among the first to see the collective idea of his organization, Blue Horizons and Titan Dynamics come to fruition. Gage was the first Airman to launch a test of this nature. He says it was a huge success.

“I don't think I can say that I've ever been a part of something this epic,” Gage claimed. “The main goal I wanted to see was that the UAS was able to sustain itself in-flight. It achieved that really well.”

According to the TF-99’s leadership, their role in the early testing phase was one of support.

“We are a vehicle that industry and big Air Force can use, and our access, environment and technical skills allow us to integrate all the pieces together and make this assessment happen in theater,” said Col. Mark Whisler, TF-99 commander. “When given a requirement, we now have the flexibility to customize a drone for that mission in 48 hours or less. That’s pretty awesome.”