Defense Department officials this week said they successfully tested of
one of the world's largest swarms of micro-drones. The October test featured more than 100 Perdix unmanned aerial vehicles – which are only 6.5 inches in length and weigh 290 grams – launched in mid-air from three F/A-18 Super Hornets over the Mojave desert in China Lake, California.
DoD officials described the demonstration, launched by the once-secretive Strategic Capabilities Office, as "
one of the most significant tests of autonomous systems." Some of the capabilities demonstrated included collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying and self-healing.
"So they've got radios on and they're each telling each other not just what they're doing, but where they are in space," Will Roper, SCO director, said regarding the communication of these small systems on 60 Minutes, which documented the demonstration. These UAVs communicate with each other "[m]any, many times a second when they're first sorting out," Roper added.
The swarm is designed to mimic those found in living organisms.
"Due to the complex nature of combat, Perdix are not pre-programmed synchronized individuals, they are a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature," Roper said. "Because every Perdix communicates and collaborates with every other Perdix, the swarm has no leader and can gracefully adapt to drones entering or exiting the team."
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, who stood up the SCO in 2012 as then-Deputy Secretary and has been a champion of fostering innovation at DoD, had high praise for the recent success. "I congratulate the Strategic Capabilities Office for this successful demonstration," Carter said in a DoD release. "This is the kind of cutting-edge innovation that will keep us a step ahead of our adversaries. This demonstration will advance our development of autonomous systems."
"There's several different roads they could have gone down. And you don't know which one to search. You can tell them, 'go search all the roads,' and tell them what to search for, and let them sort out the best way to do it," Roper told 60 Minutes of Perdix capabilities.
DoD has sought to integrate various levels of autonomy into numerous applications, with Roper telling 60 Minutes autonomy could be the biggest thing since nuclear weapons. "I mean, if what we mean is biggest thing is something that's going to change everything, I think autonomy is going to change everything," he said.
Swarming well under way across DoD
Small UAVs have been an attractive avenue for autonomy and swarming concepts. The Air Force in May released its small unmanned aerial systems roadmap detailing various operational concepts and uses these systems will provide in the future. The Air Force's chief of the remotely piloted aircraft capabilities division, Col. Brandon Baker, provided a few operational, yet still pre-decisional, vignettes for how these systems might be employed.
At a conference in October Baker noted how the Air Force could allocate small-UAS swarms to commanders, rather than larger unmanned assets such as MQ-9 Reapers. These swarms could multiply their effects and sensors and operate as a single platform, he noted. The aforementioned self-healing concept, as explained by Baker, could involve a prioritization schema provided to the swarm, which would allow the swarm to collaboratively understand who is involved in the fight and understand what sensors and payloads it has as a collective unit. As some aircraft begin to drop off due to fire or technical failure, the swarm will regroup to continue its mission. It might not fully accomplish its objective, he said, but the swarm could still achieve part of it.
While the recent demonstration saw small UAVs dispensed from F/A-18s, other concepts involve other air platforms, such as AC-130s, to eject devices.
The Office of Naval Research is also working on autonomous swarming capabilities, namely through its Low-Cost Unmanned Swarming Technology, or LOCUST, program, which seeks to launch swarming UAVs to autonomously overwhelm an adversary with small, tube-launched aircraft.
"My LOCUST program is truly maturing ... the algorithms to be able to maneuver individual vehicles in a complete concert, single organism type of domain and be able to break off and send and go do something, engage, sense, what have you, come back," Rear Adm. Mathias Winter, formerly the head of ONR,
said over the summer.
touted the progress of LOCUST noting that researchers launched 33 UAVs in succession with devices breaking formation, engaging targets and landing on shore to demonstrate recoverability. He added that the Navy this fiscal year is funding a follow-on to LOCUST that focuses on payloads for swarming environments.
Other autonomous solutions under construction in the private sector involve cross-domain solutions for command and control of UAS assets.
Lockheed Martin has fused two of its platforms, the Marlin autonomous underwater vehicle and the Vector Hawk UAV, to develop a cross-domain solution. In this scenario, a Vector Hawk is placed in a canister aboard the Marlin, and once the Marlin is given a command signal from a surface vessel – manned or unmanned – or a ground control station, Marlin surfaces to shoot the Vector Hawk into the air.
This system has an intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance package capable of streaming video back to a submarine or unmanned surface vehicle. In a real-world concept of operations, the entire network of systems would be forward deployed with a satellite signal sent back to the ground station of a ship to view the ISR feed, Doug Prince, business development, unmanned underwater systems at Lockheed Martin, told C4ISRNET in a September interview.