drone swarms

Will ‘drone swarms’ change the future of warfare?

Last month, amidst a – still visible – cloud of suspicion and disbelief, UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced ‘swarm squadrons’ would be deployed as standard by the British Armed Forces in the coming years; with the first such squadron due to be established by the end of this year.

Although there is significant doubt that the UK plans are far forward enough – or even factually correct enough – to make this a reality, that’s far from the case with our neighbours over the pond.

The US has, for many years now, been testing interconnected, co-operative drones that are capable of working together to overwhelm adversaries. Low-cost, intelligent and inspired by swarms of insects in their movement capabilities and patterns, (and hence the terminology ‘swarm squadrons’), US Military officials are of the widespread belief that these new machines could revolutionise future conflicts – and limit the exposure of human pilots to harm.

From swarming over enemy sensors with a deluge of small, rapidly moving, impossible to predict targets; to spreading out over impossibly large areas equipped with heat-seeking technology for search-and-rescue missions, they could have a range of invaluable uses both on and off the battlefield.

But just how different is this new “swarm” technology from the other drones that are currently used, or being developed for use, by militaries and governments across the globe? The answer lies within the swarms of insects studied to create the technology – and it’s as simple as self-organisation.

Instead of being individually controlled by a human, which would be the case with a ‘normal’ drone, even one of military origins; the basic idea behind a drone swarm is that its machines – its component parts, if you will – are able to make decisions among themselves by communicating with each other and forming patterns with the other members of the swarm. In other words, by operating exactly as we see insect swarms operating. So far the technology has been at an experimental stage – hence the reason for so much skepticism of the UK Defence Secretary’s claims of an operational squadron by the end of this year, but it is edging closer to becoming a reality: within the United States military, at least.

Swarms – of the drone variety, as in the insect world – come in different shapes and sizes; and they’ll have different jobs or roles to fulfill too. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has for quite some time now been working on a programme of drones that they’ve dubbed ‘Gremlins’; these being micro-drones in size but formed to the shape of missiles, designed to be dropped from planes and perform reconnaissance over vast areas. It’s undoubtedly the case here, that one day such drones would be fitted with their own micro-missiles too: it’s surely just a matter of time before that advancement becomes a fact.

It’s already the case that larger drones have missile capabilities. On the other end of the size spectrum to the Gremlin is the larger ‘Valkyrie’ drone, measuring almost 9m in length overall. It has been called a ‘loyal wingman’ for a human pilot, and is able to carry precision-guided bombs and surveillance equipment to targets. One such drone recently completed its first successful test flight, although the eventual aim is for it to work in a group alongside a manned fighter jet, one success is all it takes to advance the research & development programme to that next level.

In either case, whatever the size of the drone, the biggest advantage of a ‘swarm’ is the ability of machines to work together in numbers. And when it comes to the battlefield, numbers matter. The ability to overwhelm your enemy could be priceless and could completely negate the need for human pilots – and therefore human casualties – in future conflicts.

The UK however, is a long way from this, hoping as it does to simply utilise the work of other nation states in this field. Without our own programme of research, development and testing we’re going to be left behind in these new ‘drone wars’ – so will there be more announcements to come from the UK military?

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