Mind of the swarm
Amazing new technology allows drones to flock together as they fly
Dozens of small, unmanned aircraft systems fly together, filling the sky. Some are collecting information. Some are identifying ground targets. Others might attack the same targets.
They fly together like a flock of birds, tracking their positions and maintaining their relative positions in the air. Human operators are not needed for every flying drone; instead, they direct the flock as one.
New software is allowing UAS platforms to work together in formations that can overwhelm adversaries, capable of flying into areas that are too dangerous for men and women in uniform. Under a contract from DARPA, the Pentagon's advanced research agency, Raytheon BBN Technologies is developing tools to autonomously control swarms of ground- and air-based drones. Using speech and gestures, operators will be able to direct swarming tactics among multiple – and different - drones from a tablet or other device.
Coyote, Raytheon’s small, tube-launched UAS, has its own special software that enables several of them to fly as a swarm. Raytheon demonstrated this ability for the Office of Naval Research in a Low-Cost UAV Swarm Technology, or LOCUST, exercise a few years ago — and how did the Coyotes do?
“I would say they performed flawlessly,” said Pete Mangelsdorf, director of Unmanned Air Systems at Raytheon's Missile Systems business. “It's a breakthrough technology that uses information sharing between UAVs, which enables autonomous, collaborative behavior.”
LOCUST demonstration (Video: Office of Naval Research)
The technology is designed to expand the reach of human operators, and there are always human operators making the key decisions. The operators are connected to or on the loop of the Coyote swarm to make course corrections or other changes, if needed.
The need to net Coyotes together is becoming more urgent, as the use of drones evolves.
“It's almost impossible to defend against (swarms of UAVs),” Mangelsdorf said.
Coyote, matched with KRFS, Raytheon's small, precision radar, is also an effective counter-drone technology (to read more about counter-UAS systems, click here). Under an urgent operational need, the U.S. Army is now procuring Coyote as a near-term solution to eliminate enemy unmanned aircraft.
The next-generation of Coyotes will fly farther and faster, and have greater endurance. They will carry different kinds of payloads, depending on the mission. They will also be able to fly around for a while, circle an area and perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
“It’s a loitering munition,” Mangelsdorf said.
While it will resemble a missile, the new Coyote will be much more flexible, with the ability to turn around and come back, fly in a different location or detonate itself if a mission is aborted. Raytheon will build prototypes for the U.S. Navy’s LOCUST program under a 2018 contract, further advancing Coyote’s swarming powers.
Besides the Office of Naval Research, Raytheon is providing Coyote to the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Air Force Research Lab. If the U.S. government approves it, the company could someday offer Coyote to allied nations.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also used Coyote to track and model Hurricane Maria in 2017. The small drone can fly into storms that are too threatening for conventional aircraft.
Raytheon is responding to the growing demand by expanding its UAS factory to build more of the versatile Coyote.