The American Swarming Programme – Part Two of Three

The American Swarming Programme – Part Two of Three

In an attempt to stay ahead of the curve, the US has been heavily investing in the research and development of drone swarms. Three developments in the US swarming programme are particularly interesting: the Perdix drone swarm, the Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology (LOCUST) and the Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing, or CARACaS systems.

By Caitlin Irvine

In an attempt to stay ahead of the curve, the US has been heavily investing in the research and development of drone swarms. A swarm consists of multiple unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with a certain amount of autonomy to navigate and sense the surrounding area [1]. In comparison to Predators or Reapers they ‘are smarter and more autonomous, designed to take off and land on their own, fly mission sets on their own, refuel in the air on their own, and penetrate enemy air defences on their own’ [2].

Three developments in the US swarming programme are particularly interesting. Both the Perdix drone swarm and the Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology (LOCUST) programmes demonstrate the future trend towards more autonomous warfare. Finally, the Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing, or CARACaS system, demonstrates that swarm technology can be applied to multiple theatres of operation.

In October 2016, the US military ‘released a 103-strong swarm of Perdix drones’ in California [3]. The Perdix drone is a micro-UAV as its wingspan is less than 30 centimetres – making it ideal for operating in urban environments. The swarm demonstrated advanced behaviours ‘such as collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying, and self-healing’ [4]. The UAVs were launched from three F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets showing the ability of the US Air Force to use the developments in swarm technology in combination with their advanced air superiority. The Department of Defence’s press release stated that ‘Perdix is a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature’ [5]. The DoD’s optimism concerning swarm technology, might indicate  that it will play a role in future conflicts.

Whereas the Perdix drones indicate a move towards autonomously functioning hardware, the LOCUST programme refers to the software used. LOCUST is currently being used in Coyote UAVs that are tube-launched from a platform – not dissimilar from the anti-ship missile launchers currently on board US naval vessels. Seen as a cheaper way of gaining attack capabilities the LOCUST programme could potentially substitute for a single, expensive, anti-ship missile [6]. LOCUST systems fire a minimum of 30 Coyote UAVs in 40 seconds and they are then synchronised mid-flight to create the swarm [7]. At around $500,000 for a 30-drone swarm and just $15,000 for a single unit, the cost of LOCUST is less than half the price of the currently deployed million-dollar Harpoon anti-ship missile [8]. The LOCUST is specifically intended to take advantage of the low-cost UAVs such as the Coyote – the drones are expendable so that if one is destroyed ‘the others autonomously change their behaviour to complete the mission’ –  into an offensive dimension [9].

Finally, the third development in the US swarming programme can be found in the CARACaS programme. CARACaS developed both software and hardware that can be fitted in any vessel in the US Navy illustrating that the move towards autonomous systems is happening across multiple theatres. CARACaS is currently used in small, unmanned boats – but can be used in any vessel – and operates using swarm technology that allows the boats to communicate with one another [10]. The idea behind this project is that expensive but important routine tasks such as harbour patrols could be delegated to an unmanned supervised system. The Navy’s CARACaS system is removing the ‘dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks from sailors lives’ [11]. But the phrase ‘dull, dirty, and dangerous’ covers almost every duty and responsibility given to a standing military.

The majority of swarming software is being designed by civilian firms, for both offensive and defensive uses. Defensive systems have been relatively untouched by the current debate on lethal autonomous weapons systems. This is simply because it is difficult to campaign against a system with defensive purposes. By creating a system that has offensive capabilities – but is primarily used defensively – the issue of whether or not such a system is acceptable becomes blurred. Within the narrative surrounding drone swarms, it appears that the main use of such systems will be reconnaissance. However, their ability to also host attack capabilities is what makes them particularly terrifying.  

 

References:

[1] Bürkle, A, Segor, F, and Kollman, M (2011) ‘Towards Autonomous Micro UAV
Swarms’, Journal of Intelligent And Robotic Systems, Vol 61(1-4), p342

[2] Singer, PW (2013) ‘The Global Swarm’, Foreign Policy [online] available at:
http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/03/11/the-global-swarm/
accessed on 18th April 2018

[3] 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

[4] Adhikari, R (2017) ‘Pentagon Battle-Tests Micro Drone Swarm’,
TechNewsWorld [online] available at:
https://www.technewsworld.com/story/84217.html
accessed on 18th April 2018

[5] Department of Defence (2017) ‘Department of  Defence Announces Successful
Micro-Drone Demonstration’, Department of Defence, Press release number
NR-008-17, 9th January [online] available at:
https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Releases/News-Release-View/Article/1044811/department-of-defense-announces-successful-micro-drone-demonstration/
accessed on 19th April 2018

[6] Richardson, J (2017) ‘Swarming UAVs demonstrate enormous attack potential’,
Defence Procurement International [online] available at:
https://www.defenceprocurementinternational.com/features/air/drone-swarms
accessed on 19th April 2018

[7] 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

[8] Lachow, I (2017) ‘The upside and downside of swarming drones’,
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol 73:2, p97

[9] 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

[10] WarLeaks (2017) ‘US Navy Drone Swarm Boats: Autonomous Boats Short
Documentary’, WarLeaks - Daily Military Defence Videos and Combat Footage [online] available at:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NN3A7z9diT4
accessed on 16th April 2018

[11] Ibid.

This article is part of a three-piece series. If you would like to read the first of them, you can find it here

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