DARPA’s Plan to Overwhelm Enemies With Swarming Drones

By Carl Engelking | April 6, 2015 3:17 pm
(Credit: DARPA)

A first wave of reconnaissance would identify enemies and jam radar signals.  (Credit: DARPA)

To rule the skies above future combat zones, the United States military is developing swarms of interconnected drones and missiles.

The military’s research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA), is developing what it’s calling a “system-of-systems,” or, more simply, technology that allows drones to deploy hordes of other drones that perform a series of functions to, in DARPA’s words, “impose asymmetric costs on adversaries.” In other words, destroy the target in unison.

How It Works

A video released by DARPA illustrates a hypothetical scenario showing how a “system-of-systems” approach works. When a human pilot flying an F-35 encounters enemy anti-aircraft missile launchers, he sends a signal to spur a drone mother ship into action. At a safe distance, the drone mother ship, basically a modified C-130 transport aircraft, launches three surveillance drones that make a beeline to the enemy.

Three drones work together to beam back information about an enemy's location, and blocks their radar signals. (Credit: DARPA)

Three drones work together to beam back information about an enemy’s location, and blocks their radar signals. (Credit: DARPA)

The first wave of drones gathers images and other data about the enemy, and they also work in unison to jam the enemy’s radar. The data collected is beamed back to the pilot, who, after confirming it’s an enemy, commands the mother ship to launch a pack of cruise missiles that speed toward the target.

Essentially, the “system-of-systems” approach distributes reconnaissance and combat amongst a large number of unmanned vehicles to keep a pilot safe while also overwhelming the enemy with sheer numbers.

DARPA envisions a mostly autonomous system that digests gathered data to give the pilot just enough to make a decision. The pilot basically plays the role of the middleman, initiating attack sequences or choosing another tactic based on the data received. DARPA announced the project late last month.

After receiving a signal from a human pilot, the drone "mothership" unloads a swarm of guided missiles. (Credit: DARPA)

After receiving a signal from a human pilot, the drone “mothership” unloads a swarm of guided missiles. (Credit: DARPA)

Cost Efficiencies

The purpose of the “system-of-systems” approach is to build a combat system that is effective and cheap. Rather than develop more complex, highly expensive drones that can accomplish more functions, DARPA’s system relies on relatively simple, inexpensive drones that, when combined in swarms, get the job done effectively.

DARPA’s project is still in the conceptual phase, but the agency would like to begin experimenting with this technology by 2017 and move to full-scale testing by 2019. The keys moving forward are to make the technology simple for pilots, and also ensure enemies can’t hack into its software. DARPA has already awarded contracts to Boeing, Lockheed Martin and others to develop “system-of-systems” capabilities.

Although the agency hasn’t indicated this, one has to wonder whether DARPA’s quadruped robots might also fit into the “system-of-systems” approach.

The thought of robotic shock troops converging from the ground and the sky is a strong impetus to give peace a chance.

  • http://3dyee.com/ semavideo

    Every time I see an article related to Drons, always comes to mind recent events and scandal in one international match. Drone is made flag on the field and the game was stopped. It was funny.

  • SixSixSix

    And the winner goes to the country with the greater manufacturing capacity. Gee thanks American Capitalist and Corporate Elite for giving that to China in a continuous spasm of hating American workers, especially (gasp) organized labor.. So good you are to the rest of us, so much you do for the national benefit.

    • Mr. USA

      don’t worry, beijing would surely call off the drone strikes once a major city was destroyed by a super weapon that’s lightyears ahead of drone tech. i was a botter on a video game, and even children can program drones if theyre smart enough- but there are much more dangerous weapons out there. i guess that won’t really make anyone feel better, but at least the drones aren’t the worst thing that could happen…

      • paulrph1

        Maybe, maybe not. Once dead you are dead no matter the cause. Reality take the hard bite.

      • SixSixSix

        Not since 1945. The awfulness of a weapon can limit its utility, consider the non-use of extensive chemical warfare stockpiles by neither the Allies or the Nazis.

        • Mr. USA

          if the allied forces didnt drop the bombs first, someone else would have. just because you or me wouldn’t want to nuke out a city doesnt mean there aren’t people trained and willing to do it unfortunately. knowing that from experience is a pretty good deterrent

    • SteveD

      The F-35 was just an example. It need not be an F-35. Any forward-flying U.S. mil aircraft can relay back data of any targets it stumbles across, if properly equipped.

      The C-130 is necessary to get the drones to the war zone. They would have to be very large if they had to carry enough fuel to travel all the way themselves, and drone refueling isn’t here yet. As such, a “mothership” is called for. If it gets shot down, no lives are lost.

      Since C-130s are still being made, all the tooling and manufacturing skills needed to make a C-130 drone airframe already exists, and so would just require replacing the pilots stations with the necessary drone hardware/electronics.

      • SixSixSix

        The US won WWII largely because through superior supplies and distribution (logistics) because its manufacturing base could out produce the opposition’s capabilities. The US had the manufacturing infrastructure to produce the first atomic weapon. The science was not all that hard, nothing that can be done in nineteen months using only slide rules and not knowing if or how well it would work can be all that hard. Any nuclear physicist at CERN today could get it done. But manufacturing is hard, that requires the coordinated efforts of a great number of people. That difficulty is what the entire issue with Iran is all about.

        War is industrial. is first and foremost an industrial process. Since the American Civil War, every major conflict between powers (ignoring asymmetric warfare because that is why it is called asymmetric) has ended with the side having superior manufacturing being the one to prevail.

        The US has lost critical manufacturing ability to China, especially in hi-tech. The US does not make a single LCD panel, most Commercial Off The Self (COTS) products of any sophistication come from China. Even the enormously over financed US military relies on COTS and other supplies not found in this country any more. The more sophisticated the product needed in large numbers, like drones, the more China holds the edge if not all the manufacturing cards. The only exception to the industrial nature of war would be for a defeated US that has become backed into a corner to choose to end both Chinese and American civilization in an all out nuclear exchange. I think and hope that China would let us withdraw tails between our legs before that happens. But man oh man, will Wall Street be going through the roof with profits from their Chinese investments!

        • Damien Quinn

          The US didn’t win WW2, you should read a history book.

          • SixSixSix

            Sorry guy, nice try. Win does not mean win alone. But the US definitely provided the industrial might to the allied victory.

          • Damien Quinn

            Not Russia? Are you sure?

          • SixSixSix

            Industrially, not even close. Russia didn’t get close the US in steel production until the Sixties when it was no longer the main indicator of manufacturing capability. The Russians contributed the largest number of dead bodies, a sacrifice for which the West gave them very little credit.

          • Damien Quinn

            Yeah, lots of steel production, wonderful, but the US used it’s production capacity to fight her own war in the pacific. Uncle Joe used his to build lots and lots and lots of tanks. Germany lost the war on the eastern front, to Russia. The US played a bit part in the action to the west but the real action was all in the East.

            The US won the war in the Pacific, but not with industry or superior supplies and distribution, the US won it with nukes. Russia won the war in Europe, but with pure attrition. Nothing civilised about it.

            War isn’t industrial, war is unthinkable horror and attrition. If war was industrial the US would have won the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. You’re talking rubbish.

          • SixSixSix

            Wrong. The US buried Japanese forces with superior logistics. Look up some the pictures of the surface fleet carrying supplies (including nukes now that you bring it up). The nukes finished off a military with no ability to project power, although civil defense would have been a bitch to overcome. More people died in nightly phorous raids on Tokyo than the nukes (and by any even handed interpretation was a huge chemical warfare crime repeated in Vietnam with napalm but not since). The same thing was done to Germany on the Western front. American tanks sucked but there were many more of them. The Battle of the Bulge ended when Germany had nothing left to keep in the fightings. Capturing the Ruhr valley terminated Germany’s ability to continue the war. In itself Germany could have continued with Berlin. The supply of materials through Murmansk was vital to the Soviet ability to resist and ultimately defeat the Germans, so much industrial production was initially lost in the German onslaught.

            The practice of war stripped to its basic is to kill people and destroy their property until the other side can’t stand it more than you can. .War is both industrial and highly cooperative. The side wins with the better military industrial infrastructure, the better morale and the better discipline and almost always the larger population numbers if it is a long war. Military equipment is applied heavy industrial machinery.

            Soldiers fight out of joint solidarity and greater fear of alienating their side than fear or hatred or the enemy, especially but hardly only in professional armies. Militaries have the same social dynamic as any other gang specializing in the application of violence. War follow the same dynamic of competition as any other cut throat industrial competition carried out completely with no holds barred. Including, you may note, dramatic innovations that otherwise would have taken much longer. When one side reaches unacceptable causalities and property damage, they lose.

          • vamike999

            the Russians got many supplies tanks and weapons from the US in WWII. Read it up.

          • SixSixSix

            First American tanks were shit which the Soviets rightfully discarded – weakly armored gasoline powered death traps against panthers. The Soviets, however, arguably had the most effective battle tanks in any theatre. Aircraft and general supplies were far more important but hardly decisive. The Soviets gave lives. Check out the miniscule American deaths versus the Soviets at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/06/06/world-war-two-fatalities-visualized_n_7526390.html?utm_hp_ref=world-war-ii

            This country has no imagination of that kind of slaughter. Americans went psychotic at the thought of losing a puny 3,000 in a day on 9/11. So much so it lost more than that in the hysterical reaction of the Bush neocon War Criminals. But to match the Soviets WWII looses the US would have to lose that many per day for 9 years day in and day out, holidays included.

          • MR AWESOME

            You understand World War Two better than 99% of all people (but you should have mentioned the 300,000 trucks we gave the Soviets and 10 million tons of Amaterial). But you do not understand what life was like under Saddam. That the US was not wrong to remove him. That Iran was the cause of os much violence in Iraq during that war. And you have no respect for what the word War Criminal really means. I would also suggest taking a few Economics classes before you consignAmerica’s corpse to the wasteland. You reference steel losing out as a major indicator in the 1960’s; similar things explain a lot of today’s “problems”.

            If your problem is with Capitalism, the problem is with you instead. You seem like a very bright person. Have a nice day

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Compare the cost and effects of 1000 500-lb dumb bombs to that of 1000 drones. Go ahead – capture and reverse engineer a 500 lb bomb. So what. The Reagan Administration had Star Wars, imaginary weapons so perfect and expensive the enemy could not afford to compete. The Obama administration is developing real weapons so expensive and complex that the enemy need merely wait.

  • Phil Austin

    This sounds similar to a ground based tank assault system i read about a few years back but aerial power will always win out until satellite based systems become reality, sadly.

  • ThanksObama

    Thank Obama for screwing things up. Had he left enough troops in place in Iraq to maintain some order while the new Iraq government settled in and civilization took hold (perhaps over 10 extra years) none of what you bitch about would have happened.

    • SixSixSix

      Bush set up the plan, Obama had to carried it out. Bush set up to fail by putting Iran’s pick in place. Obama was left with nothing to work with. Yeah, Neocons, so very self destructively stupid not even smart people can save the results.

      • ThanksObama

        The new Iraq government and the people who voted for their leaders and representatives set up the plan, such as it was. Don’t think Bush was all powerful like you think Obama is. The problem with you Obama worshippers is your delusions of grandeur. You probably think you are all knowing and all powerful too, huh. That’s why you are expousing all this endless dribble. Get a life.

        • SixSixSix

          Wow. Admission that Iraq would not tolerate foreign troops due to the process and man imposed by the same invader who violently overthrew the previous regimes by exploiting outright lies. Yes, it must be the next guy’s fault. Good luck defending your war criminal’s record and its continuing fall out. The realities of life seem to be so unimportant to you.

          • ThanksObama

            666 says it all about you and the realities of life. Let’s blame everything on Bush. Bush probably created the Islamic religion back around 600AD because he was really the angel Gabriel who brainwashed Muhammad so he in turn would go forth and start Islam and from then on Bush can be blamed for pitting the Sunni faction against the Shea faction, etc., etc. And Bush probably took human form and probably organized and funded all the various Islamic terrorist groups and dictators on the planet. Hell, he probably helped elect Obama knowing that such spineless wonder would be awarded the Nobel piece prize and then bring Hillary on board along with half of his buddies from wall street and the Fed to totally screw things up all over the entire planet. And then he probably sat back and watched it all go to hell in a hand basket just like he had planned it all from the day he was handed all this power from god himself back in 570AD no less. Let’s don’t give credit for anything anyone else has done to screw things up. Let’s just blame it all on Bush because he got rid of one of the most sadistic bastards and his entire sadistic family that ever ruled a country in the heart of the middle east who never committed a single war crime of his own and that will pretty much explain it all 666 style. I don’t think so. That would be too easy. But sure does sound good, in theory.

          • SixSixSix

            Keep on self-deluding. Bush lied to Congress. Bush lied to the UN. Bush lied to his own people. Bush lied to his allies. Millions died. Bush admitted he started an unnecessary war for the greater glory. Enough with the asshoie comments, you are done. Bye. Bye.

          • ThanksObama

            I’m done OR you’re done? Sounds like you have run out of liberal ammo and have finally resorted to the typical “Bush lied and the entire world died” BS. Come on. Don’t give up now. You’re on a roll. Ra ra shish boom Obama!!!!



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