A test conducted in October has been made public by the Department of Defense, wherein three F/A-18 Super Hornets dropped swarms of miniature drones that share a single digital “brain” and can be used to circumvent aerial defenses.

The drones, called Perdix, measure less than a foot in diameter each, and communicate continuously with one another in order to overcome obstacles or compensate for the loss or additional drones from the swarm.  These autonomous, flying robots could have numerous weapons applications, but are expected to be used primarily for reconnaissance once fielded.

“Perdix are not pre-programmed synchronized individuals, they are a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature,” said William Roper, director of the Strategic Capabilities Office.

“Because every Perdix communicates and collaborates with every other Perdix, the swarm has no leader and can gracefully adapt to drones entering or exiting the team.”

The Perdix drones have been in development since 2013, and are based off of a design created by students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  They are designed to be dropped from aircraft, then to use adaptive logic and joint decision-making to accomplish objectives as a singular entity, removing the requirement for individual control of each drone.  The low-cost associated with each flying robot also permits the acceptable loss of portions of the swarm as a part of accomplishing set objectives, with the swarm programming allowing it to easily compensate for drones lost along the way.

The drones used in the October test were the sixth version of the swarmbot’s design, and, according to a report released by the Defense Department on Monday, this latest iteration demonstrated the drones’ potential for use in real deployment conditions including, “speeds of Mach 0.6, temperatures of minus 10 degrees Celsius, and large shocks—encountered during ejection from fighter flare dispensers.”

Perdix Drones in flight

The report goes on to state that “the micro-drones demonstrated advanced swarm behaviors such as collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying, and self-healing,” during the test.  Once released, the drones fly at speeds reaching fifty miles per hour and in such an erratic fashion that a cameraman from 60 Minutes that was permitted to attend the testing was almost unable to track them in his lens.  The Perdix, which means “bird” in Greek, is so tough to see while flying that a subsequent effort to film two drones flying on Fort Devens, in Massachusetts, also yielded no usable footage.

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Because the drones are self-guided, they often don’t fly along predictable flight paths, making them a challenge for even the best of shots with small arms.  In fact, not even the technicians have any control over the means by which the drones fly in order to accomplish their objectives, leaving that decision-making up to the swarm’s data processors.

“When looking at how you deal with air defense systems that are optimized to spot very large, fast-moving aircraft, small, cheap disposable drones seem to be one solution,” said Elizabeth Quintana, at the Royal United Services Institute, a military think tank.

The United States is not the only nation testing this type of drone technology.  China demonstrated their own swarm of larger, fixed-wing bots last year.  A direct comparison between the two swarms is difficult due to the limited information available regarding each, but Quintana points out that China has the resources and expertise necessary to make a formidable swarmbot army.

“They have a tremendous amount of expertise in the country,” she told the BBC.  “It’s going to be very interesting – it won’t just be about who has the biggest swarm but also about who can out-maneuver who.”

 

Images courtesy of CBS News