If there is a poster child for light-footprint counterinsurgency, it’s the MQ-9 Reaper.

Flying over vast swaths of territory and launching missiles at small bands of suspected fighters, Reapers require relatively little on-the-ground support compared to what that same coverage would have required decades ago. Little support is not no support, however, and even drone bases take hundreds of people to run, support and maintain. It’s likely impossible to reduce the human presence at an airbase to zero, but a pair of technologies suggest a way that drone bases could drastically shrink their labor needs.

Consider the SEFIAM 1602, built by Turgis et Gaillard Industrie and displayed at the Aero Defense Support Show in Bordeaux in September. The wedge-shaped ammunition loader is electrically powered, which is neat, but, far more importantly, it’s an optionally crewed vehicle. While the SEFIAM 1602 is built for a narrow purpose, loading ammunition onto Rafale jets, the concept is promising for a range of aircraft, none more than drones. Removing even some humans from the reloading process is good, and could lead to a future of robots resupplying robots.

Another way to remove people from drone-centric airbases is automatic takeoff and landing. In January 2018 Reaper-maker General Atomics demonstrated the Automatic Takeoff and Landing Capability for the drone. Using a satellite link, the drone taxied, took off and landed under the control of a remotely situated human crew. As suggested in advance of the demonstration, this process removes the need for pilots and sensor operators physically located at the in-theater airbase to control the drone and then hand it off to the stateside crew that manages the drone for the majority of its flight time.

For the future, these technologies could mean drone bases, like those in Niger, could cut back on how many people they need to operate, reducing the human footprint of counterinsurgency by gradually increasing the reliance on remote and robotic controls.

Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.

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