The military usefulness of drones attacking in swarms is hotly debated. Now the “Super Swarm” project should show how this could work.
The US Navy has launched new projects to use swarm drones for military purposes. The projects are intended to research the construction, use, and control of thousands of small drones that can combine autonomously. The aim is to overwhelm air defense systems, as they can only cover a limited number of attacks at the same time. The so-called Super Swarm project was discovered in US government budget records.
Drone swarm piloted as the only unit
The conflict in Ukraine has shown what kind of services small drones, including even quadcopters for personal use, can perform: reconnaissance work, directing artillery fire, and destroying tanks. However, such drones are currently limited by the fact that each one requires its own operator. In a swarm, on the other hand, hundreds or thousands of drones would be piloted as a single entity. “The importance of swarms of drones is that they could be used for virtually any mission,” says Zachary Kallenborn, a research fellow at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.
Many nations are working on such systems, including China, Russia, India, the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Israel, which in 2021 became the first nation to use swarm drones in combat. The US Navy has always been at the forefront in this area, even if it has so far kept a low profile publicly. Budget documents obtained by MIT Technology Review now reveal ambitious plans for drone swarms that would surpass anything previously seen. It contains details on several projects that were previously unknown and that also affect drone boats and drone submarines. They are combined in a project called “Super Swarm”.
Multiple-use drones are already familiar from civilian applications: you may have seen drone light shows where hundreds or thousands of drones fly together in perfect synchrony. However, these are not explicitly swarms, as each drone flies along a choreographed, predetermined route. The individual drones perceive neither their surroundings nor each other. In contrast, the flocks of drones fly together in a swarm, aware of their surroundings and their distance from one another. They use algorithms to avoid obstacles without getting in each other’s way – like a flock of birds. More advanced versions use AI,
Drones for kamikaze attacks
The US Navy has already made significant progress in this area. In 2017, she demonstrated a swarm of 30 drones flying together. The idea is that the drones carry explosive warheads for kamikaze attacks, making them miniature cruise missiles. The same approach has been used by Russia against Ukrainian cities in recent weeks. The US project called LOCUST (for “low-cost UAV swarming technology”) is now to be classified under the umbrella of the larger Super Swarm mission.
In April 2021, a Navy drone swarm conducted an attack on a ship for the first time in a wargame exercise. According to expert Kallenborn, even in a real operation, the drones would each only carry a few pounds of explosives – compared to the 220-kilo warhead of a Harpoon anti-ship missile. This means they could be deployed in different ways to take advantage of their high precision. “The drone swarm could attack from multiple angles to damage or destroy critical systems such as radar antennas, deck guns, and weapon systems,” he says.
The Navy’s plans, according to the budget document, call for swarms to be launched from ships, submarines, aircraft, and ground vehicles, in what is known as “multidomain operations”. The drones are designed to carry a variety of payloads: some may carry sensors, others jammers, or other electronic warfare devices. Still, others will have said warheads. However, swarms of drones still have to contend with the problem of limited range: For example, the 6-kilogram Raytheon Coyote used as part of the LOCUST program can only fly for two hours at a speed of 80 kilometers per hour, so it has to to be “hitchhiked”.
Another project called DEALRS (“Deployment and Employment of Autonomous Long-Range Systems”) is trying to solve this problem. It comes to the use of so-called Marsupial systems (a kind of “marsupials”) or special mother ships. The latter are larger unmanned aerial vehicles carrying several smaller drones. Two US drone manufacturers, Kratos and General Atomics, have already demonstrated drones launching smaller drones. However, these were only one or two, while DEALRS aims to transport and launch an “extremely large number” of small drones without human intervention.
Control and Control
Another Super Swarm sub-project aims to solve a fundamental problem of military hardware: cost. The US Army pays around $49,000 for each of its small portable drones, known as “Rucksack Portable Unmanned Aircraft Systems.” Kamikaze swarm drones need to be far more affordable to deploy in large numbers. A project called MASS (manufacturing of autonomous systems at scale) uses 3D printing and digital design tools to mass-produce inexpensive drones. The goal is a design that can be modified at will to make drones optimized for different purposes, such as flying. B. maximizing speed, range, stealth abilities, or payload.
According to US government budget documents, MASS will manufacture the drones “as far forward as possible,” suggesting possible production aboard naval vessels relatively close to the war effort. The stated goal is to manufacture tens of thousands of drones.
The Navy also wants a more sophisticated control system. Super Swarm already includes cooperative planning and assignment of tasks to the individual swarm members. Another sub-project, known as MATes (which stands for “manned and autonomous teams”), aims to facilitate human-swarm collaboration and give the swarm more autonomy.
The bandwidth available to the operator for control can decrease during the mission, for example, due to intentional radio jamming. MATes then allows the swarm to act on its own if it hasn’t received any decisions back from the operator. MATes also uses the information gathered by the swarm to inform its decision-making: It can change its flight path if the drones identify a new threat situation – or even send individual drones to investigate a newly identified target. According to the US Navy, all of this is possible using AI.