The sound alone is terrifying
by DAVE MAJUMDAR
The Pentagon’s secretive Strategic Capabilities Office — aka SCO — and the U.S. Navy have demonstrated swarming autonomous drone technology in flight using over 100 unmanned aircraft. During the October 2016 experiment, three Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets launched 103 Perdix drones over the test range at China Lake, California.
The tiny unmanned aircraft demonstrated swarm behaviors such as collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying and self-healing. The Pentagon released an official video — which you can watch for yourself below — of the test.
If nothing else, the whine of dozens of drones buzzing around sounds terrifying.
“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,” SCO Director William Roper said in a statement.
“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.”
This particular demonstration is one of the first examples where the potential of autonomous swarms is truly on display. Previously, the Pentagon would have to use to large unmanned aircraft — which cost as much as a manned aircraft — to achieve the same effect.
With this technology, the enemy has to work much harder to take down individual components of the swarm to destroy it. Moreover, the swarm would still operational even after an opponent has destroyed multiple aircraft, allowing for a graceful degradation of the collective whole as it comes under attack.
Thus, once the swarm technology is operational, the potential is almost limitless.
The Pentagon is working on transitioning the Perdix — one of the fruits of the Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s Defense Industrial Unit-Experimental effort — into an operational aircraft. One of the challenges will be to find to a company that will be able develop the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory’s design into a mass production model.
Unlike a typical military design, Perdix is based on commercial technology — like a smartphone —that companies have continually upgraded since its inception. According to the Pentagon, engineering students at MIT developed the tiny drones in 2013, but engineers further adapted the technology for combat use.
After the experiment, U.S. officials said they wanted to build Perdixes in batches of up to 1,000.
“Now in its sixth generation, October’s test confirmed the reliability of the current all-commercial-component design under potential deployment conditions — speeds of Mach 0.6, temperatures of minus 10 degrees Celsius, and large shocks — encountered during ejection from fighter flare dispensers,” a Pentagon press release explained.
The Perdix is just the harbinger of things to come. American troops could use future swarming drones for everything from taking down enemy air defenses to electronic warfare to reconnaissance.
The technology is in its infancy, but the Pentagon and its partners are just unlocking the potential for the first time.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest, where this article originally appeared.