After several years of explosive proliferation, there are now thousands of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in service with U.S. and allied forces. But the vast majority of them operate singly and with a human operator in the loop. Highly autonomous swarms offer many advantages over the prevailing operational concept. They can carry a wide number and variety of sensors and munitions – and a swarm is less vulnerable than a single robot by virtue of its inherent redundancy.
The Navy’s $600-million UCAS-D program, which aims to test a fast, fighter-sized UAV, was the best opportunity to begin large-scale experimentation with an aerial drone swarm. But a week after it tapped Northrop Grumman’s X-47 drone for the UCAS-D contract, the Navy announced that the six-year program would demonstrate only carrier operations. No weapons. No sensors. No swarms.
Even so, industry is banking on the Navy eventually issuing requirements for swarming. Several firms are working on methods of getting large groups of drones to navigate together without colliding, to collaborate on tasks and to share data so that information isn’t lost if one drone in the swarm is disabled or destroyed. High-fidelity sensors aboard each drone, combined with sophisticated software algorithms to tell the drone to “sense and avoid” another object, is one way to keep a swarm from destroying itself, but industry experts says that sense and evade is an expensive solution. Instead, several firms are working on networks that maintain distance between their nodes. These offer the advantage of also being able to move imagery and targeting data from node to node.
One example: A 12-man team at New Jersey-based DRS led by Pat Johnson is developing what Johnson calls an “autonomous collaboration network” for aerial drones that is independent of GPS and of the Pentagon’s Global Information Grid. “We’re getting drones to talk to each other so they can swarm, work in teams, exchange target information and record strikes” for battle-damage assessment. Johnson says the network has already been tested on a company aircraft, and that undisclosed customers have expressed interest. He adds that UCAS is an obvious (eventual) application.
The DRS network is based on a station-keeping data-link system used by Air Force cargo planes in the pre-GPS era. It relies on Radio Frequency transmissions using Ethernet standards and protocols, combined with proprietary software, to knit together a high-capacity data network where every node is aware of the distance to every other node.
Read more in the latest issue of Defense Technology International.
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