Military Unleashes World’s Largest Drone Swarm

The U.S. Defense Department released the largest swarm of autonomous micro-drones during a recent test over China Lake testing ground in California.

Traveling at Mach .6, three F/A-18 Super Hornets successfully launched 103 Perdix drones from the fighters’ underbelly flare dispensers. With a tiny, 11.8-inch wingspan and weighing only .6 pounds, the drones withstood temperatures of minus 10 degrees Celsius as well as a jarring jolt upon ejection.

Reading very much like the next Terminator movie script, a DoD press release states: “The micro-drones demonstrated advanced swarm behaviors such as collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying, and self-healing.

Named for a Greek mythical hero transformed into a bird, Perdix took flight in 2013 and is based on a design by MIT engineering students. The defense department adapted the design and software for military purposes and built prototypes using all‐commercial  components,  3D‐printing,  and  agile  manufacturing. More than  670 missions have been flown to date.

“Due to the complex nature of combat, Perdix are not pre-programmed synchronized individuals, they are a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature,” Strategic Capabilities Office Director William Roper said. “Because every Perdix communicates and collaborates with every other Perdix, the swarm has no leader and can gracefully adapt to drones entering or exiting the team.”

If the program is successful, defense officials may replace larger, more expensive drones – such as Predators – with smaller, more agile swarms. “Humans will always be in the loop,” Roper added. “Machines and the autonomous systems being developed by the DoD, such as the micro-drones, will empower humans to make better decisions faster.”

Autonomous drone swarms have been on the radar of the industry for a few years but represent a paradigm shift from the traditional model of a human-only operator piloting one aircraft at a time. Commercial applications could include enhanced security systems, small-scale delivery and inventory control.

In 2016, HumanITas Solutions, a Quebec-based research collective, developed a drone-swarm management information system. Dubbed Humanit3D, the “mobile ecosystem” can integrate secure databases, workflows, messaging, real-time 3D mapping and artificial intelligence capabilities during an emergency. The system uses the computing power of a smartphone to create a flying mesh network that allows real-time collaboration between drones . Using configurable protocols, drones can communicate to perform complex tasks.

The University of Pennsylvania‘s General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab  has developed a swarm of 20 nano-sized quadcopters. GRASP drones can work together to manipulate objects and build structures together.

Hungarian researchers have developed 10 autonomous swarming quadcopters that self-organize as they move through the air. The swarm can negotiate tightly confined paths together without a central computer or controlling device, instead using flocking algorithms based on bird behavior.