Last week the Pentagon released video taken in October showing Navy F/A-18s releasing more than a hundred Perdix micro UAVs in a test of swarming behavior. The Perdix drones, which deployed in canisters from pods that normally release flares to confuse heat-seeking missiles, appear so small in the video (above) that they are nearly invisible. You can hear them buzzing as they circle a point from 100 meters away, at speeds approaching 70 mph.
Swarming drones are not new. In 2015 an Air Force F-16 deployed 20 Perdix aircraft during an exercise in Alaska. What made the October test significant, according to Missy Cummings, a former Navy F/A-18 pilot and current director of Duke University’s robotics program, is that it happened at all. “There’s a lot of animosity toward drones, and I think it’s great that they did this, because I hope it signals a shift in culture” within the Navy.
Cummings adds that there is no theoretical limit to how many aircraft could be deployed as a swarm. The practical limits, at least for now, relate to bandwidth limitations.
The October test was sponsored by a new Pentagon organization just emerging from the shadows: The Strategic Capabilites Office, often mentioned in the same breath as fabled future-gazers DARPA. While DARPA is looking far down the road at new technologies, the SCO tries to take what’s already available and make it do something new.
The first Perdix drone was conceived and built by students from MIT’s Aeronautics and Astronautics Department in 2010. Three years later, after the designers proved their folding wing aircraft was able to withstand a 300-G launch load, the program moved to the MIT Lincoln Laboratory for futher development with the SCO.
According to the SCO, “Perdix are not preprogramed, synchronized individuals. They share a distributed brain for decision making, and adapt to each other.” Having a human control so many drones at once isn’t possible, so they are given “plays” to execute. “A playbook is a way for a human to express to the robot team what they want to do without having to type in lines of code to express that,” explains Cummings. The drones then figure how to run the play. If the swarm loses one or more aircraft for any reason, it can adapt to the changes without human input because each aircraft communicates with other members of the swarm.
The Pentagon says that Perdix [swarms] will have an intelligence role and perform other missions, without specifying what those missions might be. The technology has the capability to create new ways to hurt an enemy. Rather than fall to the ground after completing a mission, a drone’s final act could be to fly down the air intake of an enemy aircraft to destroy its engine. If a Perdix carries explosives, it could detonate inside hangers and buildings or hit moving vehicles. The potential uses for swarming, whether civilian or military, are just beginning.