Army testing swarms of small drones

Researchers want to see what's possible with small, inexpensive quad and octocopters.

The Army is experimenting with using swarms of small, inexpensive drones in battlefield missions—as much as anything because of the potential threat they could pose to U.S. forces.

Army quadcopter tests NIE

Members of the Targets Management Office with Program Executive Office for Simulation Training and Instrumentation are using groups of quadcopters and octocopters to see what they’re capable of. The flights, part of an Army Test and Evaluation Command program to assess possible uses for and countermeasures against synchronized drones, are taking place at the ongoing Network Integration Evaluation exercises at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., and Fort Bliss, Texas.

"ATEC is our customer, they tasked us to come out and look at swarming, the variations and the payloads we can apply to this," James Story, an engineer with the Targets Management Office, said in a release. "We saw this as a threat that wasn't being addressed and ATEC agreed."

These types of drones aren’t much of a concern at the moment, because of their small size, limited payloads, short flight times and the fact that swarming is pretty rare. And they’re not exactly armored. But the technology is improving, and their relatively low cost makes them more easily available to adversaries. "Right now there's hardly anyone doing swarms, most people are flying one, maybe two, but any time you can get more than one or two in the air at the same time, and control them by waypoint with one laptop, that's important," Story said. "You're controlling all five of them, and all five of them are a threat."

The Army points out that even small military drones, like the Tarantula Hawk micro air vehicle, used for surveillance, IED defeat and target acquisition, costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and requires extensive training to operate. A commercial quadcopter like the 3D Robotics Iris series being used in the tests, on the other hand, goes for about $1,000 and can be flown by anyone pretty much out of the box.

Researchers are adapting the drones for various missions, giving them cameras, larger battery packs and bomb simulators to see what they can handle. They could be used for surveillance, to deliver, say, a small bomb or, because of their low cost, be used as a bomb itself, crashing into its target.

A key aspect of the tests is to see if flight times can be extended. "The payloads make the difference. When you add video, the camera, the heavier battery for more flight time ... so for the smaller bird here the flight time goes from about 15 minutes, to about seven minutes of flight time," Story said. "That's part of what we're doing here is seeing if we can increase the flight time.”

And, of course, swarming is key, because if drones arrive in teams, one or more of them are more likely to get through. In preparing for NIE, the team visited White Sands in September, eventually getting as many as 10 of copters at a time executing a flight plan.

The Office of Naval Research, meanwhile, has demonstrated its own swarming technology, both with autonomous and semi-autonomous boats on a river and with small aircraft.

The NIE exercises run through Oct. 8.

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