Boeing Testing Drone Swarming Tech

It’s been quite a week for UAV related news; we found out that the Navy will replace its big EP-3 Aries SIGINT planes with drones around 2020, then the Air Force announced that a midair collision occurred between a C-130 and a drone in Afghanistan and the Navy is arming its Fire Scout drone choppers.  Now, Boeing is experimenting with a concept of drone warfare that’s been around for a while; swarming.

Basically, you throw a ton of drones at an enemy and through sheer numbers overwhelm any defenses.

Last month, the Chicago-based defense giant flew two Insitu Scan Eagle UAVs and a Procerus Unicorn from The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory over Oregon and had them talk to each other autonomously. A key ability for remotely piloted aircraft to have if they are to attack targets together.

Many see swarm tech as the key for overwhelming modern air defense systems. Who knows, maybe someday in the not too distant future hundreds of relatively cheap but lethal drones will seriously reduce the role played by the F-22s, F-35s, J-20s and PAK FAs of the world.

From a Boeing announcement:

Swarm technology is similar to how insects communicate and perform tasks as an intelligent group. The UAVs worked together to search the test area through self-generating waypoints and terrain mapping, while simultaneously sending information to teams on the ground. A broader demonstration is planned for the end of September.

“This is a milestone in UAV flight,” said Gabriel Santander, Boeing Advanced Autonomous Networks program director and team leader. “The test team proved that these unmanned aircraft can collect and use data while communicating with each other to support a unified mission. This swarm technology may one day be used for search-and-rescue missions or identifying enemy threats ahead of ground patrols.”

  • JimS

    reminds me of Stalin’s quote “Quantity has a quality all of its own.”

    • Bill

      EMP tech will then follow in step

  • traindodger

    Next, you put one of those new IBM neuronal chips in them so they’re semi-sentient, and then you need Josh Lucas, Jessica Biel and Jamie Foxx to swoop in and shoot them down when they go rogue.

  • @Earlydawn

    More evidence that defense only listens to the cool elements of Hollywood films, and not the risks.

  • Dfens

    It doesn’t look like a swarm to me. It looks more like a cluster!

    • blight

      Or a murder, if they were crows.

  • Nenad

    Smart idea, sending swarm of drones plus hundred cruise missiles and for ending B-2 with massive over 10tons bombs and those Iran nuclear reactor, cold water plant and uranium enrichment facility are over.
    But counter strike and oil prices are still a huge issue.

  • David

    Swarm of drones seems to be perfect target for flak gun/ phalanx style systems

    • ffjbentson

      with stealth, at night at 25-35,000 feet??? don’t think so

    • blight

      If the swarm has ALCMs, then…?

  • Musson

    This is how we beat Nazi Germany.

    They had better planes. But, we had a lot more of them.

    Oh, and remember, swarming is the Chinese plan for dealing with
    our carriers.

    • blight

      I’d be more afraid of the first person to develop sea-skimming cruise missiles that use a submersible terminal attack profile instead of a top-attack one. Imagine if someone develops a LO cruise missile that could skim, then dive underwater and detonate a thousand pound HE payload on a ship’s keel…yikes. Then again, high-speed cruise missiles probably wouldn’t survive their dive into the water, so at least it would be a /slow/ cruise missile.

      Or a missile that could transition to a supercavitating mode from surface and zoom into its target, and thus perform its terminal attack phase at reasonably ranges while underwater. We have no CIWS against underwater attack asides from acoustic decoys, so…

      • blight

        As far as I can tell, this would essentially be like ASROC on steroids. ASROC was a missile fired to an area and it transitioned into a torpedo, but with a short range.

    • SJE

      Actually, by the time the US entered the war, the Brits had better planes than the Germans, which I why they won the “Battle of Britain” The Germans were particularly impressed with the Spitfire and the Mosquito.

      The Brits also had the lead in both intel and radar, which allowed them to conduct night raids and detect German planes.

      • blight

        My impression was that the Spitfire was newer and blank slate compared to the older pre-War Hurricane, whereas the Luftwaffe was running standardized on the Me109s and only improving incrementally instead of deploying brand new aircraft.

        Then again, the majority of the Battle was fought early on on the backs of the Hurricanes. The Germans were disadvantaged by low range and fighting over enemy territory and forced to manage their fuel (similar to American F-4’s over Vietnam), whereas the RAF fought over home soil, giving them good endurance and enough fuel to fight properly; and to parachute onto friendly soil.

        Chain Home and preliminary decryption was also helpful…but I think Chain Home was probably more useful?

        • SJE

          I was speaking of “we” as USA. The USA didn’t win the air war against Germany.

          • saberhagen

            oh yeah? And I guess the Spitfires flied all the way from Britain to the Third Reich and defeated Goering there?

          • blight

            The RAF did their share of night bombing over Germany, which strangely is little reported on while the 8th AAF seems to be showered with propaganda.

        • Riceball

          Definitely hard to trying to dogfight with one eye on the fuel gauge.

          • blight

            It was worse for the Phantom pilots…which incidentally had worse combat range than the Spitfire

  • blight

    The quoteable parts are: “flew two Insitu Scan Eagle UAVs and a Procerus Unicorn from The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory over Oregon and had them talk to each other autonomously.”

    Depending on bandwidth, it suggests that UAVs could be used to transmit data between each other to act as flying relays. And if they can do so autonomously, it suggests they may have redundant capabilities in the event of packet loss to act as a distributed network: like a flying internet.

    In a more meat-and-potatoes sense, aircraft that can talk between each other can coordinate their attacks. “Swarming” conveys the idea of attacking en masse and achieving objectives via attrition. If they can communicate with each other autonomously, it opens doors for autonomous aircraft to execute combined arms missions.

    Send a swarm into country X. Reconaissance aircraft detect enemy air defense. Communicate. Execute SEAD mission with UAVs. Penetrate defenses, attack various objectives, each assigned an initial weight, with targets of opportunity assigned weights as they appear, and should the weight of a target of opportunity exceed that of the programmed target, autonomously re-coordinate resources to attack. So instead of hitting a fuel tank farm; a UAV may sight a TEL with a BM on it. This will be weighted more than the fuel tank farm, and the swarm adjusts accordingly for a new mission.

    The sooner we can develop autonomous aircraft with primitive decision-making capability…

  • Blackhawk Fitness

    …as seen on the movie “Skyline”

    • Ben

      The only part of the movie worth seeing, lol.

  • Lance

    Yeah more remote control planes to get jammed and crash and the mission goes to maned fighter again.

    • traindodger

      If you give them AI control, you could set them to follow waypoints or even RTB immediately if they get jammed. There are always workarounds for this sort of thing.

    • blight

      TERCOM (as found in Tomahawks) has been around for a while, so we know that we can instruct objects to find their targets based on “visual” cues. The next stage is testing if our systems can weight targets and pick “better targets” from a list of targets…

      Maybe we should start this with TLAMs. Load a variety of static targets into a swarm of cruise missiles and fire them off. Cruise missiles would “determine” if an airbase was shattered by cruise missiles and “move on” to the next target. They could also take over if missiles fell short of target or were destroyed, etc.

      It would be best to figure out this kind of thing in cruise missiles before we waste money on bundling its R&D with a specialized drone program. If we can’t get cruise missiles to pass “target destroyed” and “move on to next target” to each other, why spend the money on building drone platforms and selling “swarms” on powerpoint presentations to the Pentagon set?

  • Jayson

    We were on par with Nazi Germany on tech and it took time to build manpower to over come them. The Russians are a better example how they swarmed them with cheap equipment and they just kept coming even with the huge heavy losses. germany couldn’t handle them.

    If it wasn’t for the Russians front, it would have been more of a standoff with us.

    • blight

      I think the “Russian tech” myth was mostly true at the beginning, when the entire Russian pre-war Red Army west of the Urals was decapitated and being marched into Poland to die in prison camps. However, the Russians still had equipment like the T-34 and the KV to overmatch German PzII, III, IV and the Czech tanks like 35(t), 38(t) and the like. They had acceptable field guns in the 76mm (which were mounted in tank destroyers by the Germans), and after losing the biplanes and with enough trucks coming out of Lend-Lease were able to go to wartime production with their tank force.

      The Soviets did not do the total tech upgrades the Germans did. T-34s were produced in limited quantity at the early onset with mild upgrades throughout the war and only changes made were to build them faster. By contrast, the Germans went from a micro-tank force (PzII, III, IV) to bigger tanks (IV, V, VI). The fact that T-34 served from beginning to end is a testament to robust design, not “cheap equipment”. Ironically, the Germans helped the Red Army by sweeping out all the bleh pre-war tanks.

      • blight

        Take that back; the T-34 served because the Soviets couldn’t drop production. Like the Americans, they eventually ran into heavy tanks they couldn’t crack, necessitating the upgun and a bigger turret. Otherwise there was no glaring deficiency with the hulls. They weren’t /terrible/ tanks, and the inequity between the Red Army later on in the war was nothing like it was in the earliest dark days when swarming was quite literal.

        • asdf

          actually the sherman was also a cheap tank, like is thought for the t-34.
          but they had 20k of them and zi zermans only had a couple 1000.

          • blight

            The workhorse tanks of armies tend to be “cheap”. The Shermans,T-34s,Panzer IVs and…bah, what was the British workhorse tank?

            Germans had total of 16k Panzer IV’s. 20k M4’s in ’43 alone (and this would be the low velocity 75’s…)

            And Panzer IV wasn’t exactly superior to the Sherman with 75. Production counts aren’t totally indicative of the quality of the vehicle…this ignores the mass

          • Riceball

            Late model PzKw IVs were superior to most Shermans in terms of firepower. While both tanks were armed with 75mm cannons but just because they were both 75 mm doesn’t mean they were the same. The guns on the late model PzKw IVs were a long barreled, high velocity variant specifically designed as an anti-tank gun whereas the Shermans were armed with a short barreled, low velocity gun that was designed more as a bunker buster than an anti-tank gun since Shermans weren’t supposed to be used against other tanks, that was the job of the thin skinned tank killers.

          • blight

            The early M4 Shermans had short barrel guns and overmatched the short-barreled Panzer IVs and Panzer IIIs. The Germans improved Panzer IV with the Ausf F2, G and H .

            Otherwise you are correct about the doctrinal intent of the M4: to destroy non-hardened targets.

  • asdf

    there will sure be a lot of bugs in the software for that kind of autonomy.

  • Belesari

    Drones are nice but they are ment to do certain things far cheaper or or stay on mission far longer than a manned asset.

    I find it troubling that drones are getting more and more and more and mre expensive. At what point does it become a choice between say a F-35C with a price of 100mil to a new drone that can do less but cost 90mil?

    If they are going to build a swarm they will need thousands of drones not dozens or hundreds. So can you build a drone for only say 3-6 mil that can be used multiple times.

    • Melcyna

      they’ve already done that,

      most US drones currently operating on the field are reusable with price tag around 2-5 million depending on their configuration.

      and considering the price tag will only go down once it’s fully mass produced and the tech perfected your stated goal is technically already done.

      and you are forgetting another thing, the pilot cost… training a pilot cost significant amount of money, LOSING one more so plus to replace the loss.

  • not impressed

    Part 1 / 2

    OK: “Swarms”…

    Achilles Heel(s) : Long, relatively predictable and detectable flights, especially over both oceans, a fatal dependence on stealth (works for how long still?), vulnerablity of their mobile launching platforms.
    Also: One thing is to teach a U.A.V. / U.A.V. swarm to find a way out of a maze or “obstacle course”, another thing is to tell it to dodge (swarms of) missiles, let alone to protect your own forces from intelligent enemy ordnance. And how do the U.S.A. intend to defend themselves against enemy swarm attacks?!

    (I suppose you’re perfectly aware that U.A.V. swarms won’t fight relatively low-tech and bloody Infantry wars for you either, where every low-ranking, lowbrowed superior coolly wastes dozens of subordinates per week just to check which jungle road or city road is safe)


    • Melcyna

      the drones would handle swarms of missiles the same way human pilots handle missiles really, i mean it’s not like they actually have that much choice on what to do.

      and how do USA defend themselves against enemy swarm? with their drone swarm? wouldn’t that be the logical step?

      i mean drone swarms are perfectly replaceable given enough resources, pilots are not.

      I mean you do realize they r talking about aerial drones here right? no one even suggested these drones and UAV from replacing anything on the ground, or winning the ground war somehow by itself… not sure where you get that odd idea.

  • chaos0xomega

    I bet the defense industry will love this… ‘cheap’ drones costing millions of dollars a piece swarming a target in the hundreds, so what if we lost 100 million dollars worth of drones taking out a 10 million dollar target that a single 100 million dollar aircraft could have achieved without losses using a 500,000 dollar missile…. there weren’t any friendly casualties, isn’t that what counts?

    Get real, this is a wonderful idea on paper but what practical purpose will this serve? I honestly hope the Pentagon isn’t dumb enough to actually invest in this technology as a serious means of fighting a war.

    • blight

      Exactly, which is why I’m suspicious of how this article is presented to the mainstream by using the phrase “swarming”…

    • Matrix_3692

      I guess it would work better if it was a “swarm” of cruise missile ……?

      • blight

        I think that’s how they will test it. Cruise missiles first, and then with autonomous aircraft performing strike missions second.

    • Guest

      Do a Google search on “Air Dominator”.

    • traindodger

      They can build some of these smaller drones (which, when folded up, fit in the back of a pickup truck) for less than it costs to make a Hellfire missile:…

    • saberhagen

      and where exactly did you ‘conveniently’ pull out all these ‘objective’ numbers?

    • Melcyna

      if 100 million dollars worth of drones are destroyed in the process (at about 5 million per drone on average thus far that’s 20 drones) then that means whatever plan or route the drones were using was a DEATH TRAP and the 100 million dollar plane will likely have perished just as well except this time it takes a pilot or more with it.

      i think pentagon probably have someone with more intelligence than you do.

  • tiger

    Is this not how The Cylons get started???

  • SJE

    Autonomous drones talking to each other as they fly and attack. Lets call it “SKYNET”
    Surely nothing bad can come of this.

    • crackedlenses

      The second they start acting in the least bit intelligent, somebody get Arnold I-can’t-spell-his-last-name…..

  • SJE

    Funny how cyborgs can get old and pudgy

  • ricky

    jeez if i saw a that many bombers above my house im getting on my susuki and getting away lol

  • Naz

    I get the feeling that our war planners are spending their time playing Starcraft.

  • walrus1998headshothippo

    Thanks for sharing :)