Navy office awards $30 million contract for drone swarms

How expensive is it to recreate a biblical plague with robots? For the Office of Naval Research, it comes to $29,688,168, or roughly one quarter the purchase price of an F-35B. That’s the contract award to Raytheon for further development of the the “Low Cost UAV Swarming Technology,” or LOCUST, prototype.

We’ve seen LOCUST a few times before. In 2016, ONR launched a swarm of drones from a series of tubes on the back of a truck, like a cyberpunk beehive. A year later, ONR showed the system launched instead from containers on F/A-18 Hornets. What’s notable about the prior demonstrations is that the bodies of the drones themselves are different, and the launch methods are too. LOCUST calls to mind a specific sort of swarm, a kind of small and vicious mass moving through the air, but the technology here appears largely platform agnostic. LOCUST is about sensors and software, not the arbitrary constraints of physical form.

Here’s an earlier demonstration, from a video published in May 2016:

ONR drones built to operate as a swarm, seen in action in 2016.
ONR drones built to operate as a swarm, seen in action in 2016.

These drones, fixed wings with delta-shaped bodies, resemble nothing so much as old wartime footage of prop-powered fighters and bombers fighting in the skies above Europe. They move through the sky like schools of fish and provide protection for the whole formation, even if they do little to protect an individual plane from harm. With swarming, the LOCUST formation can use the same principles of mass and redundancy as in eras past, but without a handful of lives on board each aircraft that’s shot down.

The most recent award for the LOCUST program funds with an expected date of completion in Jan 25, 2020. Should the autonomy software perform as well as intended, it will be up to the Navy to decide how to use the power of redundant autonomous aircraft moving as one through the sky. Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance are the immediate possibilities, but why name a technology after locusts if destruction isn’t at least somewhere in the minds of the machine’s architects.

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