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What researchers are trying to develop is a suitable digital interface to enable the fighter pilot to easily control a swarm of drones with a few general commands
Drones are now an indispensable component of military power. Since the turn of the century, drones, technically known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have proliferated rapidly. Around 90 countries currently possess military drones and the unmanned/manned mix of major air forces could exceed 50/50 in just 15 or 20 years. Even non-state actors are able to use drones to devastating effect, as demonstrated by the September 14 coordinated strikes on two Saudi Arabian oil facilities.
But the United States (US), where the drone story really took off, realises that its free run is over, mainly because drones are extremely vulnerable to a variety of threats. In June, Iran’s 3rd Khordad Air Defence (AD) missile system shot down a Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drone that had allegedly violated Iranian airspace. And in August, a General Atomics MQ-9 armed drone, known as unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV), was brought down by Houthi rebels in Yemen using a surface-to-air missile possibly provided by Iran.
Therefore, the US and other nations are now urgently seeking to make their UAVs more survivable using the principle “survival lies in numbers”. Drone swarms and Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUT) are two ways to do so.
SWARMING TO SURVIVE
At present, each operational UAV needs a separate controller. But thanks to advances in chip technology and software, it is becoming possible for drones to achieve mutual coordination and create a drone swarm. This has been spectacularly demonstrated several times with aerial ballets of hundreds of small drones dancing, blinking and manoeuvring in coordination. However, all these devices were pre-programmed or choreographed in advance, whereas in a true military swarm, every UAV is partially or fully autonomous. Although the mission commander sets the overall mission objective, individual drones make decisions autonomously.
The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency is in the forefront of research to give drone swarms the ability to operate and collaborate autonomously even without GPS guidance. For instance in October 2016, 103 birdsized Perdix micro-drones launched from three F/A-18 Super Hornet combat jets, flew in a swarm and demonstrated collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying, self-healing and other typical swarming characteristics.
The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency is in the forefront of research to give drone swarms the ability to operate and collaborate autonomously
How does a swarm help survival? Scores or even hundreds of armed quadcopter drones could be simultaneously launched towards the target from ground vehicles or aircraft. These could either link up and fly to the mission area or follow different routes to saturate the battlefield and overwhelm even the most sophisticated current Russian or Chinese AD systems. They could then mount attacks within milliseconds of each other. Even if some drones were intercepted en route to the target, enough would probably survive to execute the strike.
MANNED-UNMANNED – TRIUMPHING THROUGH TEAMWORK
While it could take years to endow drones with the Artificial Intelligence (AI) necessary to operate in large autonomous swarms, what is likely to emerge much sooner is MUT – the control of unmanned systems from a manned aircraft. Airbus is already performing flight tests to validate the concept. For instance five Airbus Do-DT25 target drones have been successfully controlled by a mission group commander airborne in a command and control aircraft. In Airbus’s vision, MUT will be an important element of Europe’s Future Combat Air System (FCAS). Boeing too has a team of 15 autonomous test-bed drones to refine autonomous control algorithms, data fusion, object detection systems and collision avoidance manoeuvres.
On a scale smaller in numbers, but larger in size and power, the USAF’s Project Skyborg aims to acquire fast, stealthy UCAVs that can fly and even fight alongside manned fighters. For instance, the Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie is undergoing a series of tests as a “wingman drone” with the intention of having an operational system ready by 2023. One or more Valkyrie drones could fly in formation with a manned F-35 or F-15EX fighter jet. The human pilot could send Valkyries ahead to probe the enemy defences before deciding how best to penetrate them. The downing of a scout Valkyrie would be undesirable no doubt, but its expected $2-3 million price tag pales into insignificance against $100 million for the jet fighter. And no human life would be lost.
The USAF Academy even believes it can “train” UAVs in offensive and defensive fighter tactics as well as to perform standard 3D manoeuvres that fighter pilots use to support each other in combat. The question is – can a combat pilot busy with flying his own aircraft also control a bunch of UAVs? What researchers are trying to develop is a suitable digital interface to enable the fighter pilot to easily control a swarm of drones with a few general commands. And give the drones enough AI to execute complex missions with just a few simple instructions. Drone costs also need to be kept low, especially if they are jet powered.
The technological challenges of MUT are somewhat less daunting than those of drone swarms. Besides there would be far fewer ethical objections since a human pilot is in control of the robotic wingmen. On the other hand, the possibility of fully autonomous UAVs that depend solely on AI to perform advanced functions like targeting and weapon launch, without human oversight, is deeply worrisome for ethicists. Who would be legally responsible if an autonomous drone swarm were to hit a hospital or go berserk and start attacking random targets, for instance? But that is another story.