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Drone Swarms Will Change the Face of Modern Warfare

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Artist's conception of a drone swarm flying in formation.

Researchers at the U.S. Navy plan to test swarms of low-cost flying drones this summer.

Credit: David Doran

Swarms of inexpensive, expendable U.S. Navy robots this summer will leave the laboratory to be tested in the field.

The Navy's Low-Cost unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) Swarming Technology (LOCUST) program will demonstrate 30 drones flying together somewhere over the ocean.

A swarm "has a mission that it has to carry out, and it is self-reconfiguring so that if one drone gets taken out, the others autonomously change their behavior to complete the mission," says Swarm Systems CEO Stephen Crampton. He notes the advantage of a swarm is it can be attacked and continue a mission, compared to a singular aircraft, manned or unmanned, that can be brought down by one missile.

The major breakthrough in this research is the ability of the drones to communicate and be aware of each other, says LOCUST project manager Lee Mastroianni. The U.S. Navy has been working with Georgia Institute of Technology researchers to develop a system in which individual drones will position themselves autonomously, flying in formation without being told explicitly where to go.

The underlying hardware for the LOCUST program is the Coyote drone, a meter-long unmanned aircraft that was designed as an expendable reconnaissance asset with folding wings. However, Mastroianni says the hardware is less important than the sensors and software enabling the drones to act in a swarm.

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