As per a report in the TOI [i] dated 16 Jan 17, the Pentagon recently conducted the largest ever test of a drone swarm released from fighter jets in flight. In the trials, three F/A-18 Super Hornets released 103 Perdix drones, which then communicated with each other and went about performing a series of formation flying exercises that mimic a surveillance mission.
The Perdix drones, aptly named after a Greek mythological figure who was transformed into a pigeon after being pushed off a height by his jealous uncle[ii], use a unique decentralized planning algorithm to ascend synchronously, communicate with each other in midair and create cross-references so as to enable complex group acrobatic formation flights without crashing into each other or other objects that cross their path.“Unlike a centrally controlled single drone where a single entity has all the information and finds a solution, in a decentralized algorithm each entity has only partial information of the environment and its peers (for example, it can only see a few neighbors). The drones need to communicate to pass information and coordinate,” explains, Javier Alonso-Mora, one of the researchers at MIT involved in developing the algorithm.
According to the Popular Science Journal[iii], “this technology heralds a future of autonomous war machines”, both lethal and non-lethal. What makes them so attractive? Primarily the cost of production and sustenance, ease of deployment and above all, survivability in the battlefield.
Conventional drones are not only big and expensive but also controlled remotely by human pilots and sensor operators making them extremely vulnerable targets for sophisticated anti-air or electronic jamming equipment. Swarms, on the other hand involve several small flying robotic drones working together to do the same job previously done by a larger craft. While a few anti-air missiles are a cost-effective way to shoot down a UAV or a UCAV, firing that same missile at a smaller, commercial drone isn’t as effective, especially when there are so many flying the same mission, simultaneously. Further, even if one or two are actually shot down, the mission remains largely unaffected due to the decentralized algorithm. Even against enemy ECM these are more resilient, given a centralized algorithm has a single point of failure if its central controller goes offline. Once the technology is perfected, these would be inexpensive to manufacture with commercially available components and 3D printed parts. Capable of being launched from existing flare dispensers in aircraft or land/ ship based rocket launcher tubes these have small flying times of 20 to 30 minutes and are not designed for recovery post mission – thus allowing flexible and versatile usage from any land, sea or air based platform.
Given their attributes, swarm drones truly represent military hardware of the future whose successful development and deployment depends on niche software and robotic technology. These are areas where Indians have so far excelled. It’s definitely an opportunity our defence industry cannot afford to miss!