In October 2016, the United States Strategic Capabilities Office launched 103 Perdix drones out of an F/A-18 Super Hornet. The drones communicated with one another using a distributed brain, assembling into a complex formation, traveling across a battlefield, and reforming into a new formation. The swarm over China Lake, California was the sort of “cutting-edge innovation” that would keep America ahead of its adversaries, a Defense Department press release quoted then Secretary of Defense Ash Carter as saying. But the Pentagon buried the lede: The Strategic Capabilities Office did not actually create the swarm; engineering students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) did, using an “all-commercial-components design.”
MIT engineering students are among the best engineering students in the world, and they have the exact skills for the task, but they are still students. If drone swarming technology is accessible enough that students can develop it, global proliferation is virtually inevitable. And, of course, world militaries are deploying new drone technology so quickly that even journalists and experts who follow the issue have trouble keeping up, even as much drone swarm-related research is surely taking place outside the public eye. With many countries announcing what they call “swarms,” at some point—and arguably that point is now—this technology will pose a real risk: In theory, swarms could be scaled to tens of thousands of drones, creating a weapon akin to a low-scale nuclear device. Think “Nagasaki” to get a sense of the death toll a massive drone swarm could theoretically inflict. (In most cases, drone swarms are likely to be far below this level of harm, but such extremes are absolutely possible.)
Read more: The Best Battle Drone
Creating a drone swarm is fundamentally a programming problem. Drones can be easily purchased at electronics stores or just built with duct tape and plywood as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria did. The drone swarm challenge is getting the individual units to work together. That means developing the communication protocols so they can share information, manage conflicts between the drones, and collectively decide which drones should accomplish which task. To do so, researchers must create task allocation algorithms. These algorithms allow the swarm to assign specific tasks to specific drones. Once the algorithms are created, they can be readily shared and just need to be coded into the drones.
Because battlefields are complex—with soldiers, citizens, and vehicles entering or leaving, and environmental hazards putting the drones at risk—a robust military capability still requires serious design, testing, and verification. And advanced swarm capabilities like heterogeneity (drones of different sizes or operating in different domains) and flexibility (the ability to easily add or subtract drones) are still quite novel. But getting the drones to collaborate and drop bombs is not.
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Source: Zachary Kallenborn
Photo credit: Press