Unmanned Systems

DoD ramps micro-drones after successful 'swarm' test

A micro-drone test completed last fall demonstrated new autonomous capabilities, including "advanced swarm behaviors" such as adaptive flying formations and self-healing, the Defense Department said this week.

DoD's Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) in partnership with Naval Air Systems Command oversaw the October 2016 test at China Lake, Calif., the third in a series that began in September 2014. The test included 103 Perdix micro-drones released from three F/A-18 Super Hornets. The mini-aircraft were originally designed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineering students and modified for military use by MIT Lincoln Laboratory in 2013.

DoD said the October test confirmed the reliability of the "all-commercial component design" along with the ability to withstand harsh airborne deployment conditions, including speeds up to Mach 0.6, temperatures as lows as minus 10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees F) and severe shocks after being ejected from aircraft flare dispensers.

"Perdix are not pre-programmed synchronized individuals, they are a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature," explained SCO Director William Roper. "Because every Perdix communicates and collaborates with every other Perdix, the swarm has no leader and can gracefully adapt to drones entering or exiting the team."

The effort also illustrates how military planners are attempting to move away from large, expensive weapon systems to smaller, inexpensive autonomous systems. Program officials also stressed that " humans will always be in the loop" while the autonomous systems help battlefield commanders make better decisions faster.

“I congratulate the Strategic Capabilities Office for this successful demonstration,” said Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, who created SCO in 2012. “This is the kind of cutting-edge innovation that will keep us a step ahead of our adversaries. This demonstration will advance our development of autonomous systems.”

Founded in 2012, SCO said it is working with the military services to transition Perdix into existing programs. Meanwhile, the office is working with the Defense Industrial Unit-Experimental to identify companies that can replicate and scale Perdix production based on the MIT Lincoln Lab design. The goal is manufacturing the mini-drones in batches of up to 1,000, the office said.

Large and smaller Perdix swarms are capable of low-altitude intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance missions. They can also be launched from the ground or over water. The mini-craft use only commercial components, and 3-D printing techniques were used to manufacturing some parts.

The 290-gram mini-drones measure 11.8 inches in wingspan attached a 6.5-inch body. The swarms can remain aloft for more than 20 minutes and reach speeds up to 60 knots.

The October test of a "Big Swarm" was the largest so far, also demonstrating what program officials called "collective decision-making" along with adaptive formations. Perdix software and hardware are updated with each design generation akin to smartphones.


Along with scaling production, SCO said it is working on a "Gen 7" version of Perdix that would incorporate "advanced autonomy" capabilities.


Video of the October Perdix test can be viewed here.

About the Author

George Leopold is a contributing editor for Defense Systems and author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom."Connect with him on Twitter at @gleopold1.

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