Swarming Technology is Changing Drone Warfare – Part One of Three

Swarming technology, therefore, represents a disruption in terms of the strategic status quo of warfare due to the low entry cost, the general trend towards more autonomous systems, and the onus of differentiation being placed on those being attacked.”

By Caitlin Irvine

 

‘Swarm technology is nascent, and some have pegged it as the next significant drone innovation’ [1]. It allows a group of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to complete an objective whilst coordinating with one another [2]. It is not pragmatic to ask one individual to monitor up to 250 UAVs so the operator delegates a task to the swarm and monitors the network that senses, communicates, and computes the surrounding environment [3]. Investment in this subset of independently operating systems has made the use of swarming technology in operational theatres a topical matter.

 

The economic case for this new technology is clearly attractive as shown by the two major players investment in the field. The US Army’s funding for robotics for 2017-2021 has tripled to $900 million whilst China currently holds the world record for the largest swarm of drones collectively controlled at the Guangzhou Air show in 2017 [4]. The cost of a swarm relative to a harpoon missile (around $1.2 million) highlights that creating an entire swarm may be cheaper than building conventional defence systems [5]. Swarm technology has been developed primarily in small quadcopters because they are cheaper, easier to transport, and can be deployed in a shorter time than larger hardware such as the Predator B or MQ9-Reaper [6].

 

Militarily, these small drone swarms provide several advantages in a built-up operational theatre where bottlenecks are common and buildings or trees can reduce the signal range. Quadcopters are adaptable simply because of their size – they are able to navigate through narrow urban terrain [7]. A swarm can also project further than an individual quadcopter; by placing members of the swarm at different points along the approach to an operational area they can act as relay stations back to the base station where the operator is [8].

 

The issue surrounding swarms is how to defend against them. Their innovation causes a paradigm shift. Due to their ability to overwhelm and confuse traditional radar detection-based missile shields mass again becomes a decisive factor on the battlefield [9]. ‘A manned or unmanned aircraft can be brought down by a single missile, but a swarm can take multiple hits’; this places a military with a dilemma of how to respond to a swarm without looking like the aggressor [10]. Simply put, ‘there is lower costs for offense relative to the difficulty of defending against a swarm’ [11].

 

Swarming technology therefore represents a disruption in terms of the strategic status quo of warfare due to the low entry cost, the general trend towards more autonomous systems, and the onus of differentiation being placed on those being attacked. Militaries are interested in developing and deploying swarm technology because of the cost-effective advantages it presents in urban environments and the difficulties of defending against such a system. Their use in contested areas could lead to a perpetual cycle of warfare given that the best way to respond to a swarm of UAVs is to deploy your own. The investment drone swarms have received from both civil and military entities shows that they are an important developmental step for the future conduct of warfare. However, the growing trend towards autonomous weapons is concerning primarily because of the lack of thought given to the knock-on effects of such weaponry.

 

References: 




[1] Sims, A (2018) ‘How do we thwart the latest terrorist threat: swarms of weaponised drones?’The Guardian 
[online] 
available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/19/terrorists-threat-weaponised-drones-swarm-civilian-military-syria accessed on 11th April 2018

[2] Hambling, D (2016) ‘Drone Swarms will change the face of modern warfare’, Wired 
[online] available at: http://www.wired.co.uk/article/drone-swarms-change-warfare 
Accessed 10th April 2018

[3] Lachow, I (2017) ‘The upside and downside of swarming drones’, 
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol 73:2, p96

[4] Ibid.

[5] Hambling, D (2016) ‘Drone Swarms will change the face of modern warfare’, Wired 
[online] available at: http://www.wired.co.uk/article/drone-swarms-change-warfare 
Accessed 10th April 2018

[6] Bürkle, A, Segor, F, and Kollman, M (2011) ‘Towards Autonomous Micro UAV Swarms’ 
Journal of Intelligent And Robotic Systems, Vol 61(1-4), p340

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hambling, D (2016) ‘Drone Swarms will change the face of modern warfare’, Wired 
[online] available at: http://www.wired.co.uk/article/drone-swarms-change-warfare 
Accessed 10th April 2018

[9] Feng, E and Clover, C (2017) ‘Drone swarms vs conventional arms: China’s military debate’, 
The Financial Times [online] available at: https://www.ft.com/content/302fc14a-66ef-11e7-8526-7b38dcaef614 
Accessed on 16th April 2017

[10] Hambling, D (2016) ‘Drone Swarms will change the face of modern warfare’, Wired 
[online] available at: http://www.wired.co.uk/article/drone-swarms-change-warfare 
Accessed 10th April 2018

[11] Kania, E (2017) ‘Swarms at war: Chinese advances in Swarm Intelligence’
The Jamestown Foundation: China Brief, Vol 17, Issue 9, p14


Author’s Further Reading

[1] Kumar, V (2015) ‘The Future of Flying Robots’, Ted Talks [online] 
Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ge3--1hOm1s A
ccessed on 9th April 2018

[2] Boyle, MJ (2013) ‘The Costs and Consequences of Drone Warfare’
International Affairs, Vol 89: 1 (2013) pp1–29

[3] Nurkin, T (2016) ‘Unmanned ground vehicles: technology and market trends’ 
Jane’s Review [online] 
available at: http://www.janes.com/article/61176/security-unmanned-ground-vehicles-technology-and-market-trends-es2016d1 
Accessed on 10th April 2018