Swarming drones report on 60 Minutes leaves viewers with more questions than answers

Jan. 10, 2017
THE MIL & AERO COMMENTARY, 10 Jan. 2017. There's big news this week about a military demonstration of swarming drones, which were dropped by Navy F/A-18 jet fighter-bombers. These tiny unmanned aircraft were able to show collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying, and self-healing.
THE MIL & AERO COMMENTARY, 10 Jan. 2017. There's big news this week about a military demonstration of swarming drones, which were dropped by Navy F/A-18 jet fighter-bombers. These tiny unmanned aircraft were able to show collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying, and self-healing.

This announcement on Monday involved the Pentagon's Strategic Capabilities Office, partnering with Naval Air Systems Command.

Swarm behavior could enable unmanned aircraft, boats, submarines, and land vehicles to work as teams, fill in for lost or damaged drones, learn from their mistakes, and communicate new courses of action to the collective.

The ability for unmanned vehicles to swarm has virtually unlimited potential. It could overwhelm enemy defenses, act as a secure and self-healing communications network, and provide pattern recognition for targeting, reconnaissance, and even search and rescue. Think of each drone in a swarm as a pixel on a computer screen. Blend them with sophisticated computer algorithms and amazing things are possible.

With that said, this week's swarming drones demonstration also got me worrying about things that aren't quite so promising, like duplicative military research efforts, weak communication and coordination among Pentagon research organizations, and the potential to waste millions, if not billions, of dollars chasing near-identical research goals.

Related: DARPA rounds out Gremlins program with four companies to create overwhelming drone swarms

Monday's announcement involved a swarming drones demonstration last October at the sprawling China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station in Ridgecrest, Calif., in California's Mojave Desert.

Although that demonstration happened three months ago, I hadn't heard a thing about it., and few others had, either, until the event received major TV coverage Sunday night on the CBS 60 Minutes news program.

Congratulations to 60 Minutes for gaining exclusive access on a big military unmanned technology story, The Coming Swarm, yet why was there no word from the Pentagon on such a big story for three months? It makes a big story even bigger when it's announced on 60 Minutes. The Sunday night time slot queues the story up for major front-page play on Monday morning to begin the work week.

Still, I'd expect a big aerospace story like this to come from Aviation Week or other reputable sources in the trade press -- even from us at Military & Aerospace Electronics. This is where stories like this normally come from; 60 Minutes doesn't normally break stories like this unless it's a set-up, which is what this looks like. I'm not the only one who's skeptical. Read a story on AlterNet headlined How '60 Minutes' Became a Pentagon Mouthpiece for Drone War.

As for the story at hand, one might think at first glance that this is the first and only Pentagon research project that involves swarming drones, yet that's far from the case.

Related: Navy researchers developing swarms of cooperating air drones for overwhelming land and sea attacks

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., has at least two swarming drones projects in the works. One of the Gremlins program, which seeks to develop recoverable swarms of drones for reconnaissance and electronic warfare (EW).

These swarming drones could fall quickly on an unsuspecting enemy to overwhelm opposition by suppressing missile defenses, cutting off communications, spoofing internal security, and perhaps even infecting enemy data networks with computer viruses.

Early next month DARPA is ready to kick-off another swarming drones program called OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) to develop ways to swarm unmanned vehicles inside cities and towns to enhance reconnaissance capabilities and identify threats to U.S. and allied military forces from standoff ranges.

Separately, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) in Arlington, Va., is pursuing the Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology (LOCUST) program, which has demonstrated swarming unmanned aircraft designed to overwhelm an adversary autonomously by flying together like flocks of birds.

The LOCUST program involves a tube-based launcher that can send UAVs into the air in rapid succession. The drones then share information among themselves on a wireless network to coordinate their behavior in defensive or offensive missions, Navy officials say. These are just a few of the swarming drone technology research programs that we know of. It's likely there are others that we don't know about.

Related: DARPA seeks to develop ways to swarm unmanned vehicles for better military reconnaissance

So we have at least three organizations in the Pentagon working independently on swarming drone technology: the Strategic Capabilities Office; DARPA; and the Office of Naval Research -- and these are just three that we know of.

I'm not doubting the need for developing swarming drone technology; ultimately it could become one of the most influential enabling technologies of the 21st century.

Still, we have to consider the Pentagon's budget. The U.S. military must learn to operate on streamlined finances if there's any hope of revitalizing the nation's military forces back up to necessary levels. Experts worry, for example, that there's simply not enough money available to expand the U.S. Navy surface fleet up to 350 vessels -- considered the minimum necessary to carry out U.S. international commitments.

Every dollar counts at the Pentagon as we move forward. The nation's military forces still face the remote prospect of automatic across-the-board defense budget cuts to comply with current federal law. You can bet the military services will struggle to achieve adequate equipment and personnel levels.

In this environment I have to ask, is it really necessary to have at least three Pentagon organizations working on several different research projects to develop swarming drone technology? It well might be; I don't have the answer. Nevertheless, I suspect that potentially duplicative efforts like these might be prime targets for officials of the incoming Trump Administration for in-depth analysis.

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About the Author

John Keller | Editor

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

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