Day of the LOCUST: Navy demonstrates swarming UAVs

ONR, in another breakthrough for autonomous technology, shows how a team of small drones can work together to protect an asset or attack an enemy.

BAE Systems Coyote UAV

A Coyote UAV is three feet long and weighs 12 to 14 pounds.


The Pentagon has made clear that it wants the next generation of unmanned vehicles to be able to work autonomously and together, in packs that can protect a ship or outpost and cooperatively take on an attacker.

The Office of Naval Research, which last year demonstrated its breakthrough autonomous “swarmboats” on a river in Virginia, has now brought that kind of technology to the air, recently demonstrating how a team of small unmanned aerial vehicles could share information and work together to protect a base, ship or aircraft and potentially overwhelm an adversary.

The Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology, or LOCUST, program uses three-foot long Coyote drones, made by BAE Systems, that can be controlled via a line-of-sight radio link or operate autonomously according to a predetermined path. The demonstrations took place in multiple locations over the past month, and included on in which of nine UAVs worked together completely autonomously in synchronized flight, ONR said in a release.

“This level of autonomous swarming flight has never been done before,” said ONR program manager Lee Mastroianni. “UAVs that are expendable and reconfigurable will free manned aircraft and traditional weapon systems to do more, and essentially multiply combat power at decreased risk to the warfighter.”

The Navy is planning a ship-based demonstration in 2016 using 30 swarming UAVs, Mastroianni said, but because the UAVs and their tube launchers are small, they also could be used to protect tactical vehicles, aircraft or other unmanned vehicles.

The Coyote, developed by BAE under an ONR grant, weighs 12 to 14 pounds, has a cruising airspeed of 60 knots, a dash airspeed of 85 knots and can operate at altitudes up to 20,000 feet, according to BAE. Originally designed to be fired from a Navy P-3C Orion or a helicopter, it is launched from a sonobuoy container, after which a parachute opens to slow it down before its x-wings open up  and its electric motor kicks in.

By adapting the mission-programmable Coyote for cooperative autonomous flight, ONR’s LOCUST program is taking another step toward cost-effective unmanned operations that can increase security and protect the lives of service members.

Last August, ONR demonstrated its Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing, or CARACaS, system on the James River in Virginia, using up to 13 vessels—operating both autonomously and by remote—to escort a high-value ship and “swarm” an approaching vessel. CARACaS can be tacked onto just about any kind of boat, turning it into an unmanned vessel for the cost of several thousand dollars.

ONR’s groundbreaking work is among several within the Defense Department to develop cooperative, autonomous unmanned vehicles. The Defense Advanced research projects Agency, for example, recently issued a call for technologies that could enable drones to hunt like a pack of wolves, as part of its Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment (CODE) program. ONR also is looking to expand on its swarmboat work, last year sponsoring an international competition to promote innovation in developing autonomous surface vehicles.

The research efforts are all in line with the Pentagon’s updated Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, which calls for greater autonomy in unmanned vehicles of all kinds.

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