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Editorial : Drone Swarms - What Are They and How Would They Work ?

DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has launched its new OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) program. From the DARPA website : "OFFSET seeks to develop and demonstrate 100+ operationally relevant swarm tactics that could be used by groups of unmanned air and/or ground systems numbering more than 100 robots. These swarm tactics for large teams of unmanned assets would help improve force protection, firepower, precision effects, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. OFFSET plans to offer frequent opportunities for engagement with anticipated end users in the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps and would share successfully tested swarm tactics with them on a rolling basis."

The DARPA press release details how they essentially propose a gaming solution to develop drone swarm tactics, test out tactics, build a database of tactics and explore methods for human / drone swarm interaction.

One of the ideas for implementation of drone swarms is in the "urban canyon" environment, where instead of using one UAV / UGV to clear / map an area of hostile activity, a swarm of hundreds of drone could be used to very quickly and efficiently map / clear a large area.

This is all great in theory, but how would it actually work ?
In practice, one would assume you would have to use very small aircraft like FLIR (ProxDynamics)' PD-100 mini helicopter drone. These already have ability to transmit video and photos to an individual controller up to 1.6 km away. They're certainly not cheap (according to a DefenseTech article, $50 000 plus each). You would want them to be as small as possible to minimise the risk of collision in small spaces and probably also to mitigate the risk to personnel if they get in the way.

In addition to the camera, you would have to fit collision detection sensors so as to avoid the drones crashing into solid objects. As long as the drones would all be moving in a forward direction, you could probably get away with fwd facing sensors only. The transmitting system would also have to be improved as the drones would have to be able to communicate either directly with each other or all transmit to / receive from one ground station). Either way, each drone would need an onboard SDK and enough computing power to handle rapid processing of data. Also, each drone would have to be able to very effectively work out it's position relative to the other drones, probably through incorporation of a GPS chip and IMU. While the PD-100 is certainly the correct size, the extra hardware necessary for a drone swarm probably means a larger drone would be necessary.

Processing of data:
Probably the greatest challenge of receiving lots of data simultaneously is what to do with it. While one operator operating one camera drone is observing what he sees and processing it himself, when you deploy hundreds of drones, its not humanly possible to interpret what you see. To deal with this, the most effective way to process the information is problalby to take lots of photos instead of video (or use specific frames) in order to assemble them into a 3d computer model. Even doing this with one drone uses immense amounts of computing power to process the received data. Practically it may be necessary for each drone to do some of the processing of data before transmitting it back to the base station. Alternatively a network of computers may be required to process all the received data.

Whatever the eventual outcomes of the DARPA proposal, there are certainly much larger challenges to overcome than merely the algorithms to co-ordinate attacks as per computer games. It will be interesting to see how this all develops.

While the DARPA request for proposals is focussed on offensive tactics, the concept of intercommunication between drones is certainly an area which hasn't yet been developed by commercial drone manufacturers. I will be discussing this in a future article.

Author : Kevern Joubert (owner of Drone-Info and Southern Drones, helicopter pilot, drone pilot, app programmer)

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