New Terror For U.S. Adversaries — Drones Hunting In Packs

If one drone on their tail is something that makes the enemy sweat, what will they do when they find a pack of them overhead? Developing methods that will allow a pack of two or more drones to observe, hunt and destroy targets are part of a DARPA effort that may soon unleash multiple drones on unsuspecting opponents.

In May of 2014, a report in Popular Science described the results of a study by the Rand Corporation on different ways to use remotely piloted aircraft (RPA). The study evaluated several usage scenarios, and the use of the MQ-9 Reaper on “hunter-killer” missions. Rand modeled missions that assumed small search areas and restrictions due to the presence of urban environments. The effectiveness of sensors in less-than-ideal situations where fog, darkness and cloud cover was present was also evaluated, as were the use of multiple RPAs. Rand’s study showed.

  • No one combination of drones or strategy worked across the board in all scenarios.
  • Two or three smaller RPAs working together can out-perform a single more capable RPA.
  • The MQ-9 performed the best.
  • Upgrading the MQ-9 sensors, especially the Full-Motion Video (FMV) capability, would enhance this RPA’s effectiveness and flexibility.

Following these conclusions, DARPA is looking for a way to send out multiple drones in packs to increase the effectiveness of their use. This would be implemented with the addition of more drones to the military fleet. One problem, however, is the need for more operators for the drones. Each drone has a pilot and sensor operator and recent pilot shortages accentuates the need for increasing the capability of drones to fly with less human control.

DARPA has issued invitations for qualified interested parties “to participate in discussions to help develop groundbreaking software enabling unmanned aircraft to work together with minimal supervision” as a part of the “Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment” or CODE program. Meetings will be held in March in Arlington, VA.

The goal of this effort is the development of systems and software that will allow drones to operate together and more autonomously. DARPA would like to develop systems that are more capable to react to changes autonomously by increasing the capability of adapting to evolving situations and lessen the need for human control in the combat theater.

Presently, flying drones requires the aircraft to be under constant control by the pilot. Long flights to and from their destinations along with extended periods on station requires a great deal of human control. Solutions that provide for more self-control of drone’s flight and reducing the work required by ground crews will be assessed. Also, improving the survivability of drones and making use of assets that are closer to the drone’s locations rather than relying on resources thousands of miles away is also among the goals.

According to a January 21 DARPA news release:

“CODE intends to focus in particular on developing and demonstrating improvements in collaborative autonomy: the capability for groups of UAS to work together under a single human commander’s supervision. The unmanned vehicles would continuously evaluate themselves and their environment and present recommendations for UAV team actions to the mission supervisor who would approve, disapprove or direct the team to collect more data. Using collaborative autonomy, CODE-enabled unmanned aircraft would find targets and engage them as appropriate under established rules of engagement, leverage nearby CODE-equipped systems with minimal supervision, and adapt to dynamic situations such as attrition of friendly forces or the emergence of unanticipated threats.”

Each of these promise to contribute to the overall aim of DARPA’s effort — to make it possible for drones to hunt in packs and to operate more autonomously to complte their mission. The effort will likely lead to an increase in the tactical successes that make the drone program as effective as it has been.