WASHINGTON — Lockheed Martin and Verizon are experimenting with 5G-enabled drones and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance payloads in an effort that could ultimately enhance U.S. military command and control and in-the-field targeting abilities.

The two companies on Sept. 28 said they were able to securely share and analyze real-time data and other intel captured by a swarm of drones via fifth-generation wireless networks, both private and public.

The tests, conducted in May and September, and their results have significant battlefield implications, according to Dan Rice, the vice president of 5G.MIL programs at Lockheed.

“We demonstrated that 5G technology can help the DoD better detect and target adversarial assets in a military environment,” he said. “This technology detected and geolocated low-power RF signals that adversaries could use to communicate, sense or jam.”

Army, Air Force and Pentagon representatives, among others, attended the demonstration in May.

Rice sees the pairing of nimble drones, 5G connectivity and ISR capabilities as something that could be used in most any fight.

“I think nearly every branch of service is flying drones today and using technologies like this to do electronic support measures and help identify potential targets in their particular domain,” he said. “So I think it’s applicable across all branches of service, the technologies we’ve demonstrated.”

Additional, increasingly complex trials are expected as soon as November. While previous testing focused on ground targets, Rice said, the goal is to transition to an air-to-air scenario, where mobile airborne assets are discovered and tracked.

Fifth-generation wireless technologies promise significantly faster speeds and higher capacities to accommodate more and more-advanced devices. There are also worries, however, like privacy, digital weakness and expensive infrastructure costs.

The Defense Department has for years studied 5G; its 2020 strategy described the generation as “far more disruptive” than its predecessors, such as 4G, and noted that high-speed connectivity will “transform the way militaries operate.”

The department has since invested in test beds at a dozen military installations, including sites in California, Nevada, Utah and Washington. It is also studying 5G networking for overseas operations at a new open-air facility at Idaho National Laboratory, a sprawling Department of Energy nuclear reserve.

“We’ve seen the United States Department of Defense taking historic action to advance 5G communications,” said Srini Kalapala, Verizon’s senior vice president for technology and product development.

The Pentagon secured nearly $338 million for 5G and microelectronics in fiscal 2022. It requested $250 million for fiscal 2023.

Lockheed in February won a $19.3 million contract with the Defense Department to create a 5G communications test bed, known as OSIRIS, for the Marine Corps and others. Earlier this month, the Maryland-based defense giant and AT&T said they used 5G networks to securely download and distribute Black Hawk helicopter flight data in a fraction of the time it would usually take.

“We’re excited about that,” Rice said this week. “I think we’re looking to move 5G closer and closer to that tactical edge.”

Colin Demarest is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covers military networks, cyber and IT. Colin previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.

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