This year’s Super Bowl was full of historic moments. Tom Brady securing his fifth Super Bowl ring, a Super Bowl going into overtime, and the Falcons choosing not to be any good at football anymore in the second half were all memorable, but for my money, it was the halftime show that we should really have been paying attention to.
Of course, I don’t mean because Lady Gaga dressed up as a flying Romulan from “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” nor is it because of the impressive dance choreography. The Super Bowl halftime show was important because it gave us a glimpse of how warfare will be waged in the 21st century.
The beginning and end of Lady Gaga’s performance were accented by a fleet a mini-drones—300 of them to be exact—executing their own complicated choreography in the background as the singer did her thing. The drones were not technically present for the halftime performance; the FAA actually prohibited their presence in the packed stadium as variables too numerous to list could have led to complications in their flights and even injuries to the dancers or crowd. Instead, the drones executed their intricate flight paths earlier in the week and were filmed for use in the halftime show.
Each of the 300 individual drones weighed only slightly more than a half pound and were made, according to Intel, “with a soft frame made of flexible plastics and foam.” Their construction “contains no screws.” Each drone is capable of flying to elevations in excess of 700 feet and can withstand wind speeds in excess of 10 meters per second. Because FAA restrictions prohibited the drones from performing live, the Intel team arrived in Houston a week early and filmed their portion during the best possible weather conditions.
The tiny drones aren’t all that impressive when seen individually, but when grouped together in mass as we saw at the Super Bowl, you begin to get a sense of what this technology is capable of. When you see a swarm of a hundred larger drones being dropped from hardpoints mounted on the wings of a Navy F/A 18, then proceed to move and adapt the same way Lady Gaga’s did, I wouldn’t fault you for getting downright intimidated.
Whereas large drones like the infamous Predator have been a staple of U.S. military operations the world over for years now, tiny drones designed to work in concert with one another, commonly referred to as “swarm bots,” may well be the future of military drone technology. Both the United States and China have recently begun testing their own swarms of mini-drones, capable of adapting to and overcoming numerous challenges a larger drone—which often relies on more traditional flying models—simply couldn’t engage.
Like the drones shown in the Super Bowl, the entire fleet of flying robots can be controlled by a single operator and computer. Objectives are set, such as a location to reach, and the swarm sets off. The controller does not need to set flight paths for each individual drone, as the hive mind controlling them allows each to take a varied path to the destination, making targeting or tracking each small bot nearly impossible. The hive mind also allows for drones to be gained or lost en route, with the swarm “self-healing” to compensate for a loss or establishing a larger formation as the swarm grows. It will also problem solve using information sourced from each individual drone to assess a situation and circumvent obstacles.
During a Super Bowl halftime show, drone swarms can be used to make the shape of an American flag or a Pepsi logo. In combat operations, very similar swarms could be used to gather intelligence in areas too difficult or dangerous for more traditional means. They could be used to search for and identify enemy combatants, jam communications, or in any number of other applications. They can also adopt specific formations to provide a radar signature similar to that of much larger targets as a means to confuse or deceive enemy radar installations.
These small, inexpensive robots could represent a significant reduction in cost for some applications as well, as each drone is designed with price point in mind. Most swarm bots utilize a fair amount of off-the-shelf components, allowing for inexpensive parts sourcing, driving the cost per bot down. Losing a handful of small drones during a reconnaissance operation would be seen as a negligible loss, whereas losing an entire Predator means a hefty replacement price tag.
So as the rest of the world watched Lady Gaga hang from the ceiling in Houston, I was too busy looking for another sign of her drone army to care. In the long run, it’s not that these drones can take on the shape of the American flag that matters, it’s what they’ll do to prevent service members from having to come home beneath one that does.
Image courtesy of the Associated Press
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