DARPA in the U.S. and a similar group in Great Britain are investing millions in new and ongoing drone research that, if successful, will result in warfighters enjoying swarms of friendly drones that can do everything from providing medical supplies to attacking enemy troops.
Over the last 10 days, DARPA has announced two developments in their ongoing quest to build swarms of drones to protect warfighters on the ground, and the British Ministry of Defence has announced a $3.26 million investment in similar technology, so it looks like the swarms may be here sooner rather than later.
Currently, most drones on the battlefield are remotely operated aircraft, meaning that there is a pilot, just not in a cockpit in the aircraft. So, remote pilots control aircraft around the world, and the time for the signal to travel from aircraft to pilot and back means there's a serious gap between a pilot seeing something in the drone's path, the pilot giving a command to the aircraft, and then the aircraft following that command.
When drones are flying on their own over a battlefield, that's fine. But the U.S. and allied militaries have expressed interest in swarms of drones supporting each other and soldiers on the ground. Some of this support would be lethal, dropping bombs on targets like current models. Some would be non-lethal, providing surveillance, acting as signal relays, providing medical assistance, logistics, or even scaring enemies.
To do all of this, drones have to be able to make a lot of decisions on their own, allowing an operator to act as a commander of multiple aircraft rather than the pilot of a single one. This requires that the drones avoid crashing on their own, but also that they can continue their mission, even if the human operators lose connection or are jammed.
RQ-23 Tigersharks line up on a runway at Yuma Proving Ground for the CODE demonstration.
On the U.S. side, this effort falls under the CODE, Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment. The program is funded and ran by the Navy, but the workers in the program wanted to make it clear that they want to support the whole DoD, and so they've made the technology as adaptable as possible and will make the computer code available to other services.
"What we're doing with the laboratory we set up is not just for the Navy or NAVAIR. We're trying to make our capabilities available throughout the entire DoD community," said Stephen Kracinovich, director of autonomy strategy for the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division. "If the Army wanted to leverage the DARPA prototype, we'd provide them not just with the software, but an open development environment with all the security protocols already taken care of."
It's probably not surprising that the Navy would be at the forefront of this since Iran developed its own swarm tactics to attack Navy assets. The Navy responded by ensuring its ships had plenty of close-in weapons systems like the Mk. 15 Phalanx, but it also eyed the idea of creating its own offensive swarms.
A few programs were greenlit to support the effort, but the most emblematic of CODE comes from the Locust launcher. With Locust, the Navy can launch drone after drone from a launcher that looks like rocket, missile, or torpedo tubes, but actually quickly fires small aircraft. Locust can launch drones at a rate of about a drone every 1.33 seconds.
If CODE ends up being everything the Navy wants it to be, then those drones will increasingly be able to work together to achieve missions, even if an enemy manages to jam the control signals from the ship or ground operators.
DARPA is helping with CODE but is also pursuing other programs, and the OFFensive Swarm Enable Tactics program, OFFSET, looks to link together up to 250 drones on missions. Its focus is on solutions that would work in urban areas even when the drone will lose line-of-sight and some communications. And, the program wants to plug in both flying and driving drones.
This would be especially valuable if the Pentagon is right about fighting in megacities in the near to mid-future.
British drones that are part of the country's military transformation.
(U.K. Ministry of Defence)
The Brits are pursuing their own project dubbed "Many Drones Make Light Work," which is pretty great. It's being pushed forward by the Defence and Security Accelerator.
"The MOD continues to invest in pioneering technology that enhances capability, reduces risk to personnel and enables us to better perform our tasks," Defence Minister Stuart Andrew said. "Drone swarm technology can revolutionise how we conduct intelligence gathering, humanitarian aid, disposal of explosives and supply our troops on the battlefield."
Britain's new $3.26 million investment follows $40 million put into mini-drones and is part of an over $208 million program to prepare the British military and its equipment for future conflicts.
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