Swarm Warfare (2017 List)

Face it, nobody likes swarms of things.

We tackled robot swarms in in 2015, but the tech has advanced and gained purpose to the extent that it deserves a whole new entry, this time focused on military technology.

Photo: NBC News

DARPA’s OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) program “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.” Right now, humans still control all unmanned aerial and ground vehicles (UAVs and UGVs) through computer programs, but DARPA wants to find a way for the drones to act in unison by enhancing the human-swarm interface so that hundreds or thousands can be controlled on the battlefield at the same time. This technology should ultimately enable the military to interact with drone swarm through augmented and virtual reality interfaces, voice gestures, and touch commands.

UAVs and UAGs have proved indispensable in urban environments, providing location data and building clearance to ground troops. The hope is that forces can find a way to manage dozens of vehicles at a time so they can be used in evolving situations. This requires a program to be agile and programmed with a large number of swarm tactics. The vehicles also have to be able to react to unexpected situations in unison.

The U.S. Navy is currently the leader in the area of swarm warfare. We currently have small drones with only a tiny radar signature. They aren’t detected until it’s almost too late to intercept them with missiles or guns. Any attack on these drones must be done at close range while they come in at 155mps. That leaves 15 seconds between detection and impact. Even in the event that an enemy can fire, they would have to choose a target. A swarm allows some units to slip through unscathed. Even in the most intense computer simulations, one drone has always slipped through the barrier.

The drones themselves aren’t much different from what we have now, rather, the operating system allows a pilot to control the whole swarm as a single unit. DARPA also wants to set up a program to develop 100 different techniques through a community driven portal where participants can design and test their own tactics. Is this citizen science at its most sophisticated?

While the individual drones are cheaper than the currently employed Coyote missiles, the project still represents a major investment on the part of the government. Is the technology worth the cost? Is deterrence through superior technology the best way to a peaceful world? Practically speaking, what might happen if the navigation interface of the swarm was hacked? And like many advanced weapons, swarming unmanned vehicles will increase standoff distances. While this makes it safer to the unit controlling the drones, we might ask if increased distance from violence makes it too easy to inflict?

A formal solicitation for the DARPA OFFSET program is expected to be released on January 30, 2017. It will further clarify the program’s vision and respond to questions from potential proposers, so stay tuned.


Drone swarms will change the face of modern warfare (Wired UK, 2016)
Watch the Navy’s LOCUST launcher fire off a swarm of autonomous drones (Popular Mechanics, 2016)
U.S. Navy plans to fly first drone swarm this summer (Defense Tech, 2016)
Drone swarms could be lifesaver in disasters (NBC, 2015)
How swarm drones are mimicking nature (The Economist, 2015)