Air Force Developing Swarms of Mini-Drones

Drone-Swarm-1200x800The Air Force is in the early phases of developing swarms of mini-drones designed to overwhelm and confuse enemy radar systems or blanket an area with multiple sensors at the same time, service officials said.

While still primarily in the laboratory stage, the concept is gaining traction with Air Force scientists who are making progress developing algorithms for swarms of small unmanned aircraft vehicles, or UAVs, said Mica Endsley, Air Force Chief Scientist.

“It is built on the biological concept of say a swarm of bees, for example, where you can see a lot of them fly as a group but they do not run into each other. They manage some type of coordinated activity between them in order to be able to navigate successfully,” Endsley told “In the laboratory – we have developed algorithms that allow small UAVs to be able to operate that way so that they can work in conjunction without running into each other.”

Endsley added that the precise roles and missions for this type of technology are still in the process of being determined; however experts and analyst are already discussing numerous potential applications for the technology.

Swarms of drones would be able to blanket an area with sensors even if one or two get shot down. The technology could be designed for high threat areas building in strategic redundancy, Air Force officials said.

“You might want to set the task for five or six UAVs to go and cover a particular area where they work in conjunction with each other. Maybe one has one type of sensor and the other has another type of sensor — so they could cue each other,” Endsley said.

“If one picked up an object of interest, it could cue another one to go examine it with maybe a different kind of sensor that might a higher resolution. They would be working together to accomplish a particular mission.”

Groups of coordinated small drones could also be used to confuse enemy radar systems and overwhelm advanced enemy air defenses, Endsley acknowledged.

“This has the ability to provide so many targets that they cannot be dealt with all at once,” said Phillip Finnegan, UAV expert at the Teal Group, a Virginia-based consultancy.

“This is an important area of research because it offers the potential to provide new ways of attacking an adversary at lower cost. It is also important to understand that an adversary might wish to use swarms against the United States — so this has an offensive and defensive character,” Finnegan added.

In addition, small groups of drones operating together could function as munitions or weapons delivery technology.  A small class of mini-drone weapons already exist, such as AeroVironment’s Switchblade drone designed to deliver precision weapons effects.  The weapon, which can reach distances up to 10 kilometers, is engineered as a low-cost expendable drone loaded with sensors and munitions.

Cost is an important element of the mini-drone swarming concept, Finnegan added.

“From a cost perspective, it is important to figure out how to do this in a low cost way. If you start using expensive munitions, it is prohibitively expensive,” he said.

Air Force plans for new drones are part of a new  service strategy to be explained in an upcoming paper called “autonomous horizons.” The new Air Force strategy, to be released next month, also calls for greater manned-unmanned teaming between drones and manned aircraft such as F-35s.

The Office of Naval Research is also working on drone-swarming technology through an ongoing effort called Low-Cost Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Swarming Technology, or LOCUST. This involves groups of small, tube-launched UAVs designed to swarm and overwhelm adversaries, Navy officials explained.

“Researchers continue to push the state-of-the-art in autonomy control and plan to launch 30 autonomous UAVs in 2016 in under a minute,” an ONR statement said.

The demonstration will take place from a ship called a Sea Fighter, a high-speed, shallow-water experimental ship developed by the ONR.

— Kris Osborn can be reached at

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.
  • Dfens

    Apparently because they are drones they will buzz along at 250 knots regardless of what kind of moronic high drag shape they’ve been given and without any visible propulsion system. Oh yeah, it’s not about vehicles, it’s all about systems of systems.

    • Fatman

      The program seems to be more about intelligent chaff, not mini aircraft designed to keep up with anything.

  • Grozdan GRozev

    this will lead to developing of “mini” magnetic pulse by multiple countries. You just troll a fit to ru and china. The stupid electronic will be no more then an junk pael. Is maybe effective to a third world countries…..

    On the end you still will fight an intelligence on the other side. On top of all you are keep building an expensive usles tois. And this will kill the air building industry ……
    You are nuts, then if robot will made a robot where can work the curent workers you can ship them to china to build Chinese aerospace industry ……. lovely can you send oveteare and missell designers to teach them how to build an nuclear heads then Korea can have the technology for free from china as big brother nation help

  • amauyong

    why stop there…..why just only able to fly and confuse enemies + their sensors…sure stage in the air is also take the fight to the enemy in the skies…why not also able to land and walk/slide/crawl carrying mini explosives to attack/destroy enemy critical infra i.e. power, railworks etc/equipment like antenna arrays etc….or even land on water or submerged and find their targets of opportunity….not only the sky is the limit.

  • Big-D

    has the air farce figured out that the huge cargo planes carrying these “swarms” will need to fly fairly close to the bad guys

    secondly, these “swams” will have very short range and endurance

    thirdly, the bad guys will know exactly what we are doing when a huge lumbering plane comes close then suddenly their radar picture is full of the swarm

    this tactic will only be effective if you can deploy the swarm without the bad guys knowing what you are doing

    • Ben

      I don’t see why a B-2 or the LRS-B couldn’t deploy them.

      • Big-D

        the only logical way to do this is to deploy via fast movers as a part of an overall package of ECM, but of course the air force doesn’t ‘DO’ ECM anymore-they have stealth to protect them- LOL

        • Sw614

          Do you really think before you type? The article shows a C-130 as an artistic impression not as the end and final delivery system. Yes, the drones will have a short endurance. But iit only has to last long enough to accomplish the desire mission.

          These drones could possibly be deployed from cruise missiles, multiple fast movers, or even reccce acft. There is always a chance the R&D will develop a useable vehicle but operationally not viable; a good idea before its time.

          The USAF did not get put of the ECM business willingly. That was a result of the drawdowns and recommendations from the BUR. The USAF very much wanted to keep the EF-111A.

          • Dfens

            Well then, here’s an “artistic impression” of my tax dollars. They can f’ing spend that.

  • dubweiser101

    Sounds a lot like what my last girlfriend gave me. I just can’t get rid of them all.

  • Nick9876

    Maybe a ground version would be possible. Like a recoverable small drone with the warhead of a hellfire, an SDB II seeker and a combustion engine. It could be launched by the MLRS 12 at a time. The missiles that didn’t find targets are recovered, refueled and reloaded in the launch container.

  • b52mechanic

    The scary thing is that our enemies could also do the same thing. Imagine attacking the U.S. fleet in the Straits of Hormuz with a swarm of decoys with a dozen or so Exocet missles mixed in amongst them. This would negate the effectiveness of the Phalanx system to shoot them all down. This could really put the U.S. fleet in jeopardy anywhere in the world.

    It doesn’t seem to be a high technology development on the part of our enemies either. commercial drones are getting more and more durable everyday as well as their abilities to accomplish missions. All they really need is the ability to home in on a target and keep from running in to each other. they have to be large enough to carry enough fuel for stand-off purposes, however, it seems, that this isn’t a big ideal to develop.

    • Dfens

      Quantity has a quality all it’s own? That’s the whole reason the A-10 works so well against tanks. Lots of 30 mm bullets hitting one right after another. I’m sure if we called them “drones” instead of bullets the machine gun would seem much more high tech.

  • Leo Johnson

    Why spend all that money to make these things.During WW2 the army air corps would load up several planes with some stuff that they called “Chaf” and dropped it on targets that were surrounded by radar units .The Chaf would show up on the radar screens as clouds .

    • blight_asdf

      I am curious if chaff will even work anymore. I suspect “confusing enemy radar systems” might be a little trickier than they think. The other possibility might be using drones flying in formations to give off the radar cross section of a larger aircraft.

  • Charles

    Swarms of mini-drones?

    I wonder if this will soon be considered yet another reason to retire the A-10?


    • Dfens

      The defense contractors need that money so we can have another Future Combat System program that wastes $20 billion with nothing to show for it.

  • wtpworrier

    Look like something my grand kids might want to play with…h-ll, I’ll play with them!!!

  • John Scior

    I still like the idea of say an aircraft carrier able to let loose say 100,000 helium filled balloons all at once to thwart an incoming missile thats guided by reflected radar. these balloons would be like the aluminum coated ones you see in the grocery store for birthday parties. It could say, “Happy Birthday, Putin !! “”

  • Brian B. Mulholland

    I doubt you’d fool any system made within the past 20 years with either WW II chaff or “helium-filled balloons.” The Doppler effect, y’know.

  • Rocket man

    Being unmanned, rocket/missile to extreme altitude. Glide for miles, outside of danger area. Once in position, turn on maneuvering power. Do whatever task.

  • Dina

    These drones would make rellay great assassins, too. In fact, if the marketing price is low enough, you could afford to swarm whole military troops who would be almost powerless to fight back.

  • consteek

    Thanks for sharing :)

  • walrus1998headshothippo

    Thanks for sharing :)