Drone-Swarm-1200x800The Air Force is in the early phases of developing swarms of mini-drones designed to overwhelm and confuse enemy radar systems or blanket an area with multiple sensors at the same time, service officials said.

While still primarily in the laboratory stage, the concept is gaining traction with Air Force scientists who are making progress developing algorithms for swarms of small unmanned aircraft vehicles, or UAVs, said Mica Endsley, Air Force Chief Scientist.

“It is built on the biological concept of say a swarm of bees, for example, where you can see a lot of them fly as a group but they do not run into each other. They manage some type of coordinated activity between them in order to be able to navigate successfully,” Endsley told Military.com. “In the laboratory – we have developed algorithms that allow small UAVs to be able to operate that way so that they can work in conjunction without running into each other.”

Endsley added that the precise roles and missions for this type of technology are still in the process of being determined; however experts and analyst are already discussing numerous potential applications for the technology.

Swarms of drones would be able to blanket an area with sensors even if one or two get shot down. The technology could be designed for high threat areas building in strategic redundancy, Air Force officials said.

“You might want to set the task for five or six UAVs to go and cover a particular area where they work in conjunction with each other. Maybe one has one type of sensor and the other has another type of sensor — so they could cue each other,” Endsley said.

“If one picked up an object of interest, it could cue another one to go examine it with maybe a different kind of sensor that might a higher resolution. They would be working together to accomplish a particular mission.”

Groups of coordinated small drones could also be used to confuse enemy radar systems and overwhelm advanced enemy air defenses, Endsley acknowledged.

“This has the ability to provide so many targets that they cannot be dealt with all at once,” said Phillip Finnegan, UAV expert at the Teal Group, a Virginia-based consultancy.

“This is an important area of research because it offers the potential to provide new ways of attacking an adversary at lower cost. It is also important to understand that an adversary might wish to use swarms against the United States — so this has an offensive and defensive character,” Finnegan added.

In addition, small groups of drones operating together could function as munitions or weapons delivery technology.  A small class of mini-drone weapons already exist, such as AeroVironment’s Switchblade drone designed to deliver precision weapons effects.  The weapon, which can reach distances up to 10 kilometers, is engineered as a low-cost expendable munition loaded with sensors and munitions.

Cost is an important element of the mini-drone swarming concept, Finnegan added.

“From a cost perspective, it is important to figure out how to do this in a low cost way. If you start using expensive munitions, it is prohibitively expensive,” he said.

Air Force plans for new drones are part of a new  service strategy to be explained in an upcoming paper called “autonomous horizons.” The new Air Force strategy, to be released next month, also calls for greater manned-unmanned teaming between drones and manned aircraft such as F-35s.

The Office of Naval Research is also working on drone-swarming technology through an ongoing effort called Low-Cost Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Swarming Technology, or LOCUST. This involves groups of small, tube-launched UAVs designed to swarm and overwhelm adversaries, Navy officials explained.

“Researchers continue to push the state-of-the-art in autonomy control and plan to launch 30 autonomous UAVs in 2016 in under a minute,” an ONR statement said.

The demonstration will take place from a ship called a Sea Fighter, a high-speed, shallow-water experimental ship developed by the ONR.

– Kris Osborn can be reached at Kris.Osborn@military.com