The Coming Swarm

Acknowledgements to 60 Minutes.

The Department of Defense is developing a new generation of autonomous micro-drones for low-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Called Perdix, the drones are small, with only a foot-wide wingspan, and they operate in swarms to perform their missions.

The key to swarming is autonomy. Perdix are not preprogrammed. Instead, they share a distributed brain for decision-making. Every Perdix communicates with every other one. The swarm has no leader and can gracefully adapt to changes in drone numbers. Each individual adapts to the others, and to the environment, much like swarms in nature.

Autonomy may be the next truly revolutionary defense technology. Like nuclear weapons, says Dr. Will Roper, Director of the DoD’s Strategic Capabilities Office, “autonomy is going to change everything.” In a fascinating 60 Minutes segment “The Coming Swarm,” Dr. Roper calls Perdix one of the “riskiest, most exciting things going on in the Pentagon right now.” The Pentagon is spending about $3 billion per year on the autonomous technology.

And the autonomy doesn’t end with Perdix. Robots can now do very accurate image matching. Once they spot a bad guy, they can talk to an autonomous missile boat to destroy the target. Then there’s the autonomous Sea Hunter, a submarine-hunting ship that I discussed in a previous blog. And there’s also the Navy’s CICADA unmanned micro-aerial vehicle — a low-cost, GPS-guided disposable air vehicle that can be deployed in large numbers. Having no source of propulsion onboard, the CICADA is released from an airborne platform at altitude and then glides to its destination. Unlike Perdix, which generates a very audible whining noise (see the 60 Minutes episode), CICADA is completely silent and almost undetectable in flight. While humans will monitor all these systems, the goal is for them to operate without human intervention.

If you have an interest in the future, don’t miss the 60 Minutes episode. A warning:  it may make your spine tingle a bit. In addition, here’s a brief article on Perdix and one on CICADA. And of course don’t miss my blog post on Sea Hunter.

Posted in News.