US Navy researchers get drones to swarm on target

US Navy, Air Force, DARPA all looking to get small drones act as a swarm

The Office of Naval Research today said it had successfully demonstrated a system that lets small-unmanned aircraft swarm and act together over a particular target.

The system, called Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology (LOCUST) features a tube-based launcher that can send multiple drones into the air in rapid succession. The systems then use information sharing between the drones, allowing autonomous collaborative behavior in either defensive or offensive missions, the Navy said.

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Since the launcher and the unmanned systems have a small footprint, the technology enables swarms of compact UAVs to take off from ships, tactical vehicles, aircraft or other unmanned platforms, the Navy said. 

The ONR demonstrations, which took place over the last month in multiple locations, included the launch of Coyote UAVs capable of carrying varying payloads for different missions. Another technology demonstration of nine UAVs accomplished completely autonomous UAV synchronization and formation flight.

The BAE-developed Coyote drone is a 14 lb, three-foot long aircraft that has a cruising airspeed of 60 knots and can operate at altitudes up to 20,000 ft.

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 When launched from its sonobuoy container a parachute deploys to slow and stabilize it before the Coyote’s x-wings unfold and electric motor starts turning the pusher style articulated propeller. Its flight is controlled via line-of-sight radio link (VHF or UHF), as far as 20 miles from a human operator in an aircraft or on the ground. Once flying, Coyote follows an autonomous, pre-programmed path with real-time updates, BAE says.

“The recent demonstrations are an important step on the way to the 2016 ship-based demonstration of 30 rapidly launched autonomous, swarming UAVs,” said ONR program manager Lee Mastroianni.

Navy officials say unmanned aircraft reduce hazards and free personnel to perform more complex tasks, as well as requiring fewer people to do multiple missions. The small aircraft lower Lowering costs as well -- even hundreds of small autonomous UAVs cost less than a single tactical aircraft, they say.

LOCUST is just one example of systems the ONR has developed to swarm unmanned systems. Last year ONR showed off a system that lets it swarm a number of unmanned boat drones in unison that could be used for a number of intelligence gathering or military applications. Called CARACaS (Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing) the system can be put into a transportable kit and installed on almost any boat. It allows boats to operate autonomously, without a sailor physically needing to be at the controls—including operating in sync with other unmanned vessels; choosing their own routes; swarming to interdict enemy vessels; and escorting/protecting naval assets.

The Air Force too is pondering what it would take to develop a small, low-cost unmanned aircraft that it could fly in swarms to handle a number of applications such as protecting a given area or quickly gathering intelligence. From the Air Force in a Request For Information issued in 2014: “The thought is to develop an inexpensive, configurable and producible on demand air vehicle. A number of military applications can be envisioned for an air vehicle with such a capability. One potential application is to use hundreds or thousands of such units in a campaign to overwhelm an enemy’s air defenses and “punch a hole” to enable higher value, less replaceable [aircraft] to engage or monitor enemy systems.

Researchers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) also are looking to develop swarms of drones. In this case the agency recently put out a Request For Information to explore the feasibility and value of launching and recovering volleys of small unmanned aircraft from one or more existing large airplanes – think B-52, B-1, C-130.

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