You are on page 1of 5

Drone Swarms

Swarming is envisioned to be the next big thing in warfare. Some scholars visualize
swarming as the fourth evolutionary stage of warfare- the first three being melee, mass
and maneuver. As military organizations incorporated greater communications, training,
and organization, they were able to fight in an increasingly sophisticated manner,
leveraging more advanced doctrinal forms, with each evolution superior to the previous.
Today, militaries predominantly conduct maneuver warfare. Swarming is would be the
next evolution.

In November 2014, US Under Secretary of Defense Frank Kendall asked the Defense
Science Board to examine a radical idea: “the use of large numbers of simple, low cost
(i.e. ‘disposable’) objects vs. small numbers of complex (multi-functional) objects.”

Drone Swarms are one of the areas of interest in the field and are rapidly being

In October 2017, United States Air Force launched 103 small ‘Perdix’ drones from
F/A-18 jets. The 3D-printed Perdix drones weighing just a few hundred grams were
released from dispensers normally used for flares and were intended to suppress
enemy air defences by acting as decoys or by locating radar so they can be
destroyed. This was not the first instance that drone swarms becoming operational.
Earlier in 2017, 300 drones assembled into an American flag in Lady Gaga’s Super
Bowl halftime show, illuminating the night sky though the Chinese company
eHang claims the record for the biggest swarm, in a spectacular New Year show in
which 1,000 drones formed a map of China and the Chinese character for 'blessings'.

While the two were for non-military use, efforts are underway to militarize the swarm
capability. One of them is the US Navy's Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology
(LOCUST) programme aimed at fusing unmanned aircraft into a swarm. Similarly, the
Perdix trials of a swarm of over 100 drones operating together through artificial intelligence
was the largest such effort by US Department of Defence.
The swarms that many military theorists are planning for, are based on behavior models
inspired by examples from the natural world. Foremost among these are bees, ants and
termites, “social insects” that share characteristics like cooperative behavior and the
division of labor. The “stigmergy,” principle was introduced in the 1950s by French
ecologist Pierre-Paul Grassé which is a form of self-organization based on insect
behavior. Grassé observed that termites, using pheromones, left a trace of their activity
behind so as to inform the activity of other termites, with each subsequent action building
on the last. By collaborating in this way, a coherent, almost systematic pattern of activity
emerges, allowing these simple organisms to build complex structures.

Stigmergy forms the basis for “Swarm Intelligence,” a term that was introduced in the
context of cellular robotics in 1989 by Gerardo Beni and Jing Wang.

Two essential features for swarming to work is connectivity and autonomy. Connectivity
is essential to allow drones that are distributed in a seemingly amorphous mass to come
together at the right moments. Also, with connectivity they can "aggregate” and
"disaggregate", i.e. they can join or leave the swarm. Or even a single drone might detach
to get a closer look at a target, and return or carry out an attack.

Control of drone swarms is done by using a decentralized planning control algorithm

handling both stationary and moving obstacles, and which is more resilient as it does not
have a single point of failure -which is the case with centralized algorithms. In a
decentralized algorithm each entity (drone) has only partial information of the environment
and the other drones (for example, it can only see a few neighbors). The robots need to
communicate to pass information and coordinate

Battery life is a big issue for small drones. But a swarm can have a "hive", a base station
where individual drones return for recharging while the rest continue their mission. To the
operator, unaware of charging going on in the background, the swarm's endurance is

The importance of the swarm is not the individual components; rather, by synchronizing
the behavior of the collective, complex mission that would be impossible for a single drone
become achievable. Drones in swarms serve a single, extremely narrow role as an
individual element within the mass. Collectively, the mass of drones achieve the assigned

Operational Advantages of Drone Swarms

The information-processing and communications requirements of swarming makes

swarming ideal for drone systems. Autonomous, cooperative behavior of multiple
drones operating under human command at the mission level offer many advantages on
the battlefield in terms of greater coordination, intelligence and speed.

Swarms of uninhabited vehicles have several potential advantages:

• Dispersal of combat power forces the enemy to expend more munitions.

• From individual platform survivability, the system is evolved to swarm resiliency.

If there are sufficient numbers of drones, the swarm as a whole is resilient
against attack.

• The combat power of the swarm undergoes graceful degradation of combat

power even as individual platforms are attrited, as opposed to a sharp loss in
combat power if a single, more exquisite platform is lost.

• Dynamic self-healing networks – Swarming behavior allows drones to act in a

dynamic self-healing network. Inbuilt redundancy and resilience caters for loss of
a number of drones and yet maintain surveillance coverage over an area,
continuous self-healing communications and adaptive networks to take on new

• Swarm can saturate enemy defenses. However advanced the defensive systems
be, they can handle so many threats at one time. Swarm can overwhelm enemy
defenses such that “leakers” get through, taking out the target.
• Swarms can perform distributed sensing and attack by distributing assets over a
wide area. The swarm can conduct distributed focused electronic attack,
synching up their electromagnetic signals to provide focused point jamming.

Potential Capabilities

US Marine Corps has a project for a range of drones for use on land, sea and air which
envisages the drones to be the first wave to hit the beach ahead of the humans, scouting,
locating enemy positions, and possibly attacking them. The swarm may also provide
defence against swarms of enemy drones. To explore this angle, the Corps is setting up
swarm-versus-swarm wargames. (There have already been drones designed to capture
other drones.)

The little drones could be spies, scouts, or intel-gatherers, too. The Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon’s advanced science agency,
envisages foot soldiers having their own swarm for reconnaissance, especially in urban
areas and inside buildings.

Suppression of Enemy Air Defences(SEAD) is one of the tasks that the swarm could carry
out effectively. All air defence systems can handle only a given specified number of aerial
threats and can easily be overwhelmed by a swarm of drones. The air defence radars
can be jammed, or made ineffective by using deception or simple saturation measures,
leaving the entire air space vulnerable.

Though the individual drones may be too small to sink a ship on their own or destroy a
tank, they could potentially knock out radar, missile launchers or other key systems,
leaving them vulnerable to other attacks. The swarm might carry out high-risk
reconnaissance missions, collecting imagery or other data from targets too well-defended
for a manned aircraft to approach. Similarly, in defensive operations, a swarm can form
a protective cordon against the target to be defended, or even attack the offensive swarm.
The drone swarms will be used for more tasks as their capabilities evolves.


Paul Scharre, Unleash the Swarm: The Future of Warfare,

Natasha Lomas, MIT creates a control algorithm for drone swarms, Apr 22, 2016

David Hambling, Drone swarms will change the face of modern warfare Thursday 7 January

Sam Thielman, Robot swarms: scientists work to harness the power of the insect world, Sep 18,

Kelsey D. Atherton, The Pentagon's new drone swarm heralds a future of autonomous war
machines, January 11, 2017,

Kyle Mizokami, The Pentagon's Autonomous Swarming Drones Are the Most Unsettling
Thing You'll See Today, Jan 10, 2017,