The Drive’s The War Zone section recently obtained satellite photos from Planet Labs, a private satellite imaging firm run by former NASA scientists, that show a substantial new construction project at the southern end of Area 51 seems to be wrapping up.
Before you ask: no, it’s probably not aliens - although we aren’t promising it isn’t giant robots.
Actually, it seems to be an expansion of two smaller hangars, more than tripling their combined size, except the additions aren’t hard structures but soft “portico” extensions, intended to shield objects underneath from the prying eyes of satellites and extremely curious civilian pilots.
According to The Drive, the layout of the new facility could indicate a flow system for recovering, servicing and staging several smaller aircraft between missions. “Just learning how to best stage, launch, and recover a large number of semi-autonomous jet-powered unmanned systems together will surely be a focus of any such program,” War Zone journalist Tyler Rogoway noted.
The Pentagon has grown increasingly interested in networking objects in the sky in recent years, with one such initiative being the Skyborg “loyal wingman” drone program launched earlier this year. The concept would see several unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) flying into a war zone under the command of a piloted aircraft, which could direct the wingman drones to attack targets, scout ahead or even fly into the path of an incoming missile, saving the human pilot’s life.
Other projects include “drone swarms” like the Gremlin tested by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in November 2019, which would launch from and return to a “mothership” such as a C-130 Hercules aircraft.
The US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is looking at networking bombs, too, like the “Golden Horde” autonomous weapons system it is preparing to test. Sputnik reported how the bombs would be able to communicate with each other to adapt to situations that arise after being launched by an aircraft, enabling them to choose how best to attack their assigned targets.
However, because this is Area 51, where the Pentagon’s most secretive weapons and vehicles are tested, the hangars could be for something nobody without very high-level clearance has ever even heard of. In fact, the facility might not even be for drone swarms, but some other futuristic system.