When is a Drone Swarm Not a Swarm?

A recent attack on Russian bases was coordinated, but hardly an example of artificial intelligence.

One of the drones intercepted following an attack on Russian bases. (Russian Federation Ministry of Defense)
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Call it the steampunk attack of the drone world. When 13 roughly-made UAV aircraft made a coordinated attack on two Russian bases in Syria on the night of January 5, some Western media outlets described the attack as the first “swarm” attack by drones. It wasn’t. It wasn’t even close to a swarm. Even the head of the Russian General Staff’s Office for UAV Development, Major General Alexander Novikov, avoided using the term in a media briefing. The incident is probably more accurately termed as an attack by a loose formation of UAVs.

Technically, a “swarm” is a group of UAV aircraft driven by artificial intelligence. Swarming drones communicate with each other while in flight, and can respond to changing conditions autonomously. A good analogy would be a dense flock of starlings reacting to a sudden threat like a hawk. The entire flock maneuvers like a single organism.

What attacked the Russian bases in Syria is more akin to wind-up toys loaded with explosives. Unlike a true swarm, the attacking aircraft weren’t able to work together cooperatively, nor could they vary from their pre-programmed flight paths. Instead, they were following precise GPS coordinates.

In fact, the drones that attacked the Russians would probably be characterized even by hobbyists as embarrassingly crude. According to Novikov, they were powered by lawnmower engines—a throwback to the early days of ultralight aircraft—and were built from assorted parts. Photographs show them wrapped with plastic and tape, and armed with homemade munitions mounted almost haphazardly. While one of the captured aircraft was reported to have a video link, the remainder were guided solely by GPS.

Still, the coordinated attack was fairly effective in spite of Russian electronic warfare systems and the Pantsyr-S close air defense system. Developed in the 1990s, Pantsyr features twin 30mm cannons and surface-to-air missiles, both of which use radar and optical systems to track targets. Even though the 13 drones were detected “at a safe distance,” Pantsyr was only able to “eliminate” seven of them—meaning that roughly half of the attacking force was able to get through. Although Novikov didn’t address the point, the attack shows the difficulty of stopping numerous small drones in a coordinated attack, even with sophisticated air defense systems.

And even though this doesn’t really qualify as a swarm attack, those are coming soon. To get an idea of what to expect, look no further than a test conducted at China Lake, California, last year. Launching from three F-18s, the U.S. Navy demonstrated a swarm of approximately 100 Perdix drones. Perdix is a small, battery-powered, propeller-driven aircraft with folding wings that you can hold in one hand. When released en masse, they can fly like a buzzing flock of starlings or break up into individual elements to seek a target. Even if each one carries just a small amount of explosives, a Perdix swarm could wreak havoc on airfields, ammunition dumps, or even concentrations of troops. Across the military, bombs and missiles are becoming smaller, because accurately placed explosives can hit the most vulnerable areas of a target to inflict the same amount of damage as a larger blast. Swarms of drones will play a major role in that trend.

About Tim Wright

Writer and photographer Tim Wright is a regular Air & Space contributor whose assignments have ranged from Africa and Asia to the Arctic.

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