Navy drones still a work in progress

Photo credit: Sean Lyngaas

Brig. Gen. Frank Kelley said he and his staff are still working on a plan to integrate sailors and drones.

In October, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus tapped retired Brig. Gen. Frank Kelley to be the first deputy assistant secretary for unmanned systems. In doing so, Mabus signaled a move to a future in which unmanned systems, or drones, will take the lead in certain Navy missions, with humans playing a supporting role.

At a Dec. 8 conference hosted by the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement, Kelley and members of his staff said they are still stitching together a plan for integrating sailors and machines, and getting that integration right will be invaluable in making the most of unmanned systems. Judging by the discussion, the planning is very much in its early stages.

"I don't see how the Navy right now is training a cadre of people to work with unmanned vehicles," Juliet Hunt of the Office of Naval Intelligence said to Kelley after his presentation. "It's a very specialized field. There [are] a lot of things you have to understand about the systems themselves."

During his presentation, Kelley had acknowledged that much work was needed on the personnel side, and he deferred to his colleagues to respond to Hunt's comment.

Dorothy Engelhardt, Kelley's deputy, said their team is just beginning to experiment with ways to integrate sailors and drones. "Do we have to start...getting our younger people involved with understanding how these technologies will be influencing them and how they're going to have to integrate them into their concepts of operation? Absolutely."

Lt. Cmdr. Cara LaPointe, Kelley's chief of staff, added that effectively using unmanned systems requires developing "trust between the operators and the systems, and it doesn't happen by coming in at the 13th hour and training people."

The free-flowing format of Kelley's presentation was perhaps emblematic of the ongoing policy discussion Navy officials are having about how best to incorporate drones with manned systems. As if to emphasize that point, Kelley said he was heading to a meeting afterward with Sean Stackley, the Navy's top acquisition official. The pair planned to discuss a strategic roadmap for deploying unmanned systems that Mabus called for in a recent memo, Kelley said.

That memo also charged Stackley's office with identifying "manned system requirements germane to the design, development, testing and evaluation of unmanned systems, and [determining] how to eliminate those which cause an undue burden."

Mabus has charted a clear course toward greater use of unmanned systems. Getting there is the complex part.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is a former FCW staff writer.


  • People
    Federal 100 logo

    Announcing the 2021 Federal 100 Award winners

    Meet the women and men being honored for their exceptional contributions to federal IT.

  • Comment
    Diverse Workforce (Image: Shutterstock)

    Who cares if you wear a hoodie or a suit? It’s the mission that matters most

    Responding to Steve Kelman's recent blog post, Alan Thomas shares the inside story on 18F's evolution.

Stay Connected