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Air Force scientists and weapons developers are advancing in the development of swarms of mini-drones designed with algorithms that allow them to coordinate with each other and avoid collisions.
Senior Air Force officials said the precise roles and missions of this type of technology are still being determined; however, experts and analysts are already discussing many potential applications of the technology.
Swarms of drones could spot themselves and cover an area of ââsensors even if one or two are downed. The technology could be designed for high-risk areas by creating strategic redundancy, Air Force Chief Scientist Gregory Zacharias told Scout Warrior in an interview.
Groups of small, coordinated drones could also be used to confuse enemy radar systems and overwhelm advanced enemy air defenses by providing so many targets that they cannot be dealt with at the same time, he said.
Zacharias explained that perhaps a small drone can be programmed to function as a swarm leader, with others functioning as ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) platforms, ammunition, or communications devices. He also said there is great strategic and tactical value in operating a swarm of small drones which, when needed, can disperse.
“Do you want them to fly in formation for a while, then break up to get through the radar, then regroup and move towards a target?” They can jam an enemy radar or even not be seen by them because they are too small. The idea is to break up so as not to be big, expensive targets. That way if you lose one you might have another 100 more, âhe explained.
One area of ââscientific research currently being explored for drone swarms is called “bio-memetics,” an approach that examines swarming of real living animals – such as flocks of birds or insects – as a means to develop algorithms for mini-flight drone swarming, Zacharias added.
âIt turns out that you can use some incredibly simple rules for the formation flight of a large herd. It really just takes a few simple rules. If you think of each bird or bee as an agent, it can do very simple things, like determine its position in relation to the three closest objects. It’s very simple guiding and controlling stuff, âZacharias said.
Additionally, small groups of drones operating together could function as ammunition or weapon delivery technologies. A small class of mini-drone weapons already exist, such as AeroVironment’s Switchblade drone designed to produce precision weapon effects. The weapon, which can reach distances of up to 10 kilometers, is designed as a low-cost disposable ammunition loaded with sensors and ammunition.
The Air Force’s plans for new drones are part of a new service strategy that will be explained in an article published last year titled âAutonomous Horizonsâ. The Air Force’s strategy also calls for greater collaboration between drones and manned aircraft such as the F-35s. That kind of effort could help facilitate what Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said about launching mini-drones from a high-speed fighter jet.
In the future, fighter jets such as the F-35 or an F-22 might be able to control drones themselves from the cockpit to improve missions by carrying additional payload, expanding an area of surveillance or delivering weapons, Air Force scientists said.
Zacharias explained this in terms of developments in the field of artificial intelligence. This involves computer processing technology and faster algorithms that allow computers to organize and integrate information more and more on their own – without the need for human intervention. The human will likely function in a command and control capacity with computers selecting the detection, integration and organization of data, inputs and various types of material. As the range increases, the day when multiple drones can be controlled by a single aircraft, such as a fighter jet, is fast approaching.
Drones would deliver weapons, face the risk of enemy air defense or perform ISR missions flying alongside manned planes, Zacharias said.
The Pentagon is in the early stages of developing swarms of mini-drones capable of launching attacks, jamming enemy radars, scrambling enemy air defenses and carrying out large-scale surveillance missions, officials said.
The effort, which would bring a whole new range of strategic and tactical advantages to the US military, will be concentrated under a special Pentagon unit called the Strategic Capabilities Office, or SCO.
Although the office has been around for some time, it was announced publicly by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter during recent discussions on the 2017 budget proposal. The new office will explore, among other things, emerging technologies and also consider new ones. ways to exploit existing weapons and platforms.
Carter said the spin-off of autonomous drones is a key part of this larger effort to adapt emerging technologies to existing and future combat needs.
âAnother project uses autonomous swarm vehicles in all kinds of ways and in multiple areas. In the air, they develop really fast, really tough micro-drones. They can fly in strong winds and be blown out of the back of a fighter jet traveling at Mach 0.9, as they did during an operational exercise in Alaska last year, or they can be thrown into the air by a soldier in the middle of Iraq. desert, âCarter said. âAnd for the water, they have developed autonomous boats that can network together to perform all kinds of missions, from fleet defense to close surveillance, without putting sailors in danger. Each of them takes advantage of the larger world of technology.
Meanwhile, the Office of Naval Research is also working on drone swarming technology as part of an ongoing effort called Low-Cost Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Swarming Technology, or LOCUST. It involves groups of small tube-launched UAVs designed to swarm and overwhelm opponents, Navy officials said.
âResearchers continue to push the state of the art in range control and plan to launch 30 autonomous drones in 2016 in less than a minute,â an ONR statement said last year.
A demonstration of the technology is planned from a ship called the Sea Fighter, a high-speed, shallow-water experimental vessel developed by the ONR.
The army defends itself against mini-drones
While mini-drone swarms clearly provide a wide range of offensive and defensive tactical advantages, there is also the realistic prospect that adversaries or potential adversaries could use drone swarms against the United States.
It is a scenario that the services, including the Army in particular, are exploring.
The military has launched swarms of attack mini-drones against units on the battlefield during mock combat exercises to better understand the potential threats expected in the conflicts of tomorrow, service officials said.
Pentagon threat assessment officials have been concerned for some time that current and future enemies of the US military are seeking to use massive swarms of mini-drones to cover an area with surveillance cameras, jamming radar signals, deliver weapons or drop small bombs on the military. units.
As a result, the Army Test and Assessment Command put these scenarios to the test in the desert as part of the Service Network Integration Assessment, or NIE, at White Sands Missile Range. , NM
The mini-drones used were inexpensive, off-the-shelf commercial systems that could be acquired and used by potential adversaries in future conflict scenarios.
Drones have been configured to carry special payloads for specific mission functions. Cameras, bomb simulators, extended batteries and other systems will be tested on the aircraft to develop and analyze the potential capabilities of drones, according to a military statement.
The mini-drones, which included $ 1,000 quadcopters made by 3-D Robotics, were placed in real mock combat scenarios and flown against army units in test exercises.
âActing as a member of the opposing force, drones will be used for short-range missions and to flood airspace to generate disruptive radar signatures. They will also be used as a sort of observer, using simple video cameras to try to locate soldiers and units, âan army statement said before the exercise.
It was also planned to equip the drones with the ability to drop packages of flour, simulating the ability of the swarm to drop small bombs, allowing the drones to perform strike missions at close range, according to the statement from. the army.
“Right now there is hardly anyone making swarms, most people steal one, maybe two, but at any time you can fly more than one or two at the same time. time and waypoint control with a laptop is important, âJames Story, an engineer in the Targets Management Office, Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation, said in a statement last fall. “You control all five of them, and all five are a threat.”