Raytheon and others developing networked drone swarms for combat

The future of warfare lies in large numbers of inexpensive, unmanned tactical platforms that can operate in concert with one another

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A PD-100 drone by Prox Dynamics

Under a DARPA project aimed at creating new tactical tools for small infantry units, Raytheon and other defense contractors and research institutions are developing technology to control swarms of small aerial drones.

It's part of a wider move toward automation and unmanned systems by war planners in the U.S. and elsewhere, including Israel and Russia.

The U.S. has been ramping up development of military robots. The Army recently conducted range tests of autonomous ground vehicles with unmanned weapons systems aboard.

A few years ago an Army general touched off a small media frenzy when he stated on record that a quarter of U.S. Troops will be replaced by autonomous or remote-controlled machines by 2030.

Raytheon has been working on drone swarms for some time. In 2015, the defense contractor participated in the Office of Naval Research's LOCUST program, successfully networking 30 UAVs in a swarm.

War planners view weapons and surveillance platforms that operate as swarms as advantageous in tactical situations in part because they're difficult to defend against.

They're also cheaper than so so-called "exquisitely manned systems," such as jet fighters and tanks. If you envision a swarm as a cluster of relatively inexpensive distributed sensor platforms, it's easy to see the economic benefits in cases where some loss is likely to occur.

You can easily replace 20 percent of a drone swarm, but losing 20 percent of a jet fighter will ground the system.

But those benefits could have severe consequences for when and how wars are fought, potentially increasing the likelihood of armed engagement.

In 2014, the Center for New American Security released a report titled "20YY: Preparing for War in the Robotic Age," which predicted a major shift toward smaller, cheaper unmanned platforms that can operate in network with one another.

One of the report's more dire findings was that military leaders will be more likely to engage an enemy using inexpensive, unmanned robots because the immediate consequences, both in terms of the risk of casualties and potential loss of weapons systems, are drastically reduced.

The increased likelihood of combat engagement, however, would almost certainly lead to more conflict overall and could precipitate major wars.

The current DARPA project, which is called the OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) program, "envisions future small-unit infantry forces using swarms comprising upwards of 250 small unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) and/or small unmanned ground systems (UGSs) to accomplish diverse missions in complex urban environments."

Raytheon is developing a "drag and drop" interface to control networked drones, as well as a virtual simulator to test its communications technology.

Eventually the contractor will produce a physical swarm to test.

"Operators use speech or gestures to control the swarm," explains Shane Clark, a principal investigator on the program. "This is a tremendous advantage during operations. The system provides sensor feeds and mission status indicators for complete situational awareness."

Raytheon had sales of $25 billion last year. The contractor does business with more than 80 countries.

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