You might have seen the spectacular video of a flock of drones creating beautiful formations in the sky during Olympics 2018. You might also have read in the news that two Russian bases in Syria were attacked by a set of 13 drones guided by GPS, last year. Are they Drone swarms? Well, technically they are not. Such drones operate based on a pre-programmed set of rules or are remotely controlled by an operator. What is a drone swarm, then?
A group of drones can be called a swarm when they can self-co-ordinate between themselves and take decisions on their own to perform at least a part of a particular task together autonomously. Drone swarms have the capability to think and adapt to changing situations themselves and are driven by artificial intelligence. The larger the number of drones, the more efficient the swarm is.
A drone swarm can have different types of drones in different sizes. There can be sensor drones that collect information from the environment and pass on to other drones or communication drones that make sure that the integrity of communication between the drones is maintained or attack drones that carry weapons to attack. Drone swarms can potentially be used in defense operations, environmental monitoring, disaster management, oil spill cleaning, ocean cleaning, fire-fighting, SAR operations, agriculture, inspections, logistics and so on. Currently, a number of tests are being carried out in the area of drone swarming.
NASA’s Langley Research Center and MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science together tested a new drone swarm technology for search & rescue operations that can work without the help of GPS for guiding them. This is especially helpful in carrying out SAR operations in highly inaccessible areas where GPS signals are hard to receive.
One of the most critical applications of drone swarms is in the defense industry. Drone swarms equipped with deadly weapons can be used by defense forces to destroy an enemy base. Since such attacks may be carried out in a completely chaotic environment of a battlefield, they need to be adaptive and should succeed in their mission without much supervision.
A few days ago, a consortium led by Blue Bear Systems Research Ltd was awarded £2.5 million by the UK’s Defense and Security Accelerator (DASA) for the development of a drone swarm technology for defense applications. The project titled ‘Many Drones Make Light Work’ aims to reduce the number of operators required to manage a flight mission, their burden during operations and the time & resources required for their training by employing artificial intelligence in a swarm of low-cost drones. The contracted team also consists of QHQ, Plextek, Airbus and the University of Durham.
US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) under its Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment (CODE) program successfully demonstrated recently that a swarm of CODE-enabled drones can accomplish mission objectives even in the absence of GPS and when communications were denied. The CODE program focuses on improving collaborative autonomy between the drones i.e. their ability to coordinate with each other, engage the targets and adapt to changing conditions like unanticipated threats with minimal operator intervention.
Just like how various organizations are developing solutions to prepare a swarm of drones for the attack, research is also happening in the area of developing systems to counter such an attack from the enemy forces.
One such example is Lockheed Martin’s multi-fiber laser-based weapon system. The system can accurately target a drone swarm and fire multitude of bullets at extremely high speed to defeat them. The laser weapon systems are manufactured at Lockheed Martin’s Washington facility. Lockheed Martin’s Cyber based system called ICARUS™ is another such solution. Their radar system called Q-53 was demonstrated to detect, track and identify drone swarms and send this information to the command center through a battle management system. Based on this information, the command center can target and destroy the drones using either the laser weapon system or ICARUS™ system.
Though drone swarms are not yet a complete reality, they have in-numerous possibilities in the future. And the time is not too far when you can see drone swarms in the sky performing their intended tasks on their own. So, gear up and be ready to witness the wonder!
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