Sun, Dec 08, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Drone swarms set to dominate the future of aerial warfare

Militaries around the world are investing millions in developing drones that can be deployed in squadrons and operate as a pack, but the technology is still young

By Michael Safi  /  The Guardian

As evening fell on Russia’s Khmeimim airbase in western Syria, the first drones appeared. Then more, until 13 were flashing on radars, speeding toward the airbase and a nearby naval facility.

The explosives-armed aircraft were no trouble for Russian air defenses, which shot down seven and jammed the remaining six, according to the country’s defense ministry. Still, the failed attack in January last year was disturbing to close observers of drone warfare.

“It was the first instance of a mass-drone attack and the highest number of drones that I believe we’ve seen non-state actors use simultaneously in a combat operation,” said Paul Scharre, a defense analyst and author who studies the weaponization of artificial intelligence.

The attempted attacks continued and in September, the Russian army said it had downed nearly 60 drones around the Khmeimim base so far this year.

For now, military drone use is dominated by lightweight surveillance uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) and larger attack UAVs. This situation is unlikely to change in the near future.

According to defense experts at the information group Jane’s, orders for both types of device are expected to increase dramatically in the decade ahead.

However, the assaults on Khmeimim, as well as September’s successful strike on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, were early flashes of a possible future for aerial warfare: drone swarming.

The technology of swarming — drones deployed in squadrons, able to think independently and operate as a pack — is in its infancy, but armed forces around the world, including in the UK, are investing millions of dollars in its development.

The drones used to attack Khmeimim and the Saudi facilities were likely to have been programmed with the GPS coordinates of their targets and then launched in their direction. Israel is already using hordes of drones to overwhelm Syrian air defenses, saturating areas with more targets than anti-aircraft systems can handle.

According to analysts, drone swarms of the future could have the capacity to assess targets, divide up tasks and execute them with limited human interaction.

“The real leap forward is swarming where a human says ‘Go accomplish this task’ and the robots in the swarm communicate amongst each other about how to divvy it up,” Scharre said.

Analysts predict we might see rudimentary versions of the technology in use within a decade. That might include swarms of drones operating on multiple different frequencies, so they are more resistant to jamming, or swarms that can block or shoot down multiple threats more quickly than the human brain can process.

“Two fielders running to catch a ball can [usually] coordinate amongst themselves,” Scharre said. “But imagine a world where you have 50 fielders and 50 balls. Humans couldn’t handle the complexity of that degree of coordination. Robots could handle that with precision.”

Advances in swarming technology are mostly classified, though governments have given glimpses of their progress.

In 2016, the US released video of more than 100 micro-drones over a lake in California maneuvering as “a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature,” an air force scientist said.


In tests last year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency claimed a small squadron of its drones had successfully shared information, allocated jobs and made coordinated tactical decisions against both preprogrammed and “pop-up” threats.

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