The question is not if the drones will swarm, but when. Drones are touted as labor-saving devices, but few of the remotely controlled piloted vehicles in service presently can actually match that claim, since it still takes at least one pilot per drone. In a speech at the Royal United Services Institute Feb. 11, UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that the United Kingdom was ready to develop and deploy a swarm of drones by the end of 2019.
Should such a thing come to pass, it would be a remarkable development in military drones. Swarms, built on autonomous software and communicating with each other and possibly a human supervisor, would be an evolutionary change, a whole airborne host of flying machines lightly monitored and mostly empowered to execute missions on its own. Presently, swarms are the domain of showy spectacle and entertainment, but militaries around the globe are deeply interested in swarming robots of their own.
The Pentagon’s experimented with drone swarms for years, like the Perdix drone swarm from 2017, or the Navy’s LOCUST swarm drones from 2016. Earlier this year, the Department of Defense and the Ministry of Defense announced a partnership competition to develop drone AI for piloting through and mapping wildfires, but that’s at most just the start of a long drone development project.
So what sort of swarm is Williamson suggesting the UK deploy? Let’s look at the full quote.
“And, to complement leading edge technology from F35, I have decided to use the Transformation Fund to develop swarm squadrons of network enabled drones capable of confusing and overwhelming enemy air defences,” said Williamson in his speech. “We expect to see these ready to be deployed by the end of this year.”
This sounds less like an independent drone swarm and one built on vehicles designed to fly as robotic wingmates to crewed fighters. The drones closest to that vision are the craft made by American dronemaker Kratos, including a target drone adapted to a combat role and a specially designed combat drone. A drone like the ones made by Kratos, already developed to some degree in the United States, could be the easiest way to deploy a swarm and is also the most likely to accompany F-35s on missions.
As for the timeline, the Ministry of Defense clarified to the UK Defence Journal that while the RAF will develop the concept this year, finding a vendor and settling on the technology of the drone itself will be a three-year process.
Given hurdles other nations have seen going from a drone concept to a deployed swarm, it’s possible the UK will still be the first to do so. It is just extremely unlikely that it will happen anytime sooner than 2022.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.