WASHINGTON – The Pentagon has successfully launched a swarm of over 100 drones operating together through artificial intelligence, the largest such effort in DoD history and a major step forward for the department's capabilities.
The test, completed in October but only revealed by the Pentagon this week, involved 103 of the small Perdix drones, created by the Strategic Capability Office (SCO), which made autonomous decisions on how best to execute a series of objectives.
During an October 27 speech, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter hinted at "a large step forward" in autonomous swarming capabilities. At the time, Carter and SCO head William Roper declined to go into further detail, but this appears this test is what they were discussing.
The Perdix is an unmanned system, roughly the length of a large hand, which comes with two sets of wings, a small battery pack, and a built-in camera. It’s a simple design that originated in 2011 with MIT’s Lincoln Lab and was later picked up by the SCO for experimentation. The drone is packed into a small box which can be ejected from the flare dispenser on a fighter jet, an important solution because it means the systems can be mounted on existing planes with ease.
Upon launch, the box protects the Perdix from the first brush with the elements and gives it time to get far enough away from the jet to safely deploy. The drone then launches from the protective casing, fully boots up, and begins searching for and connecting to other Perdix systems – creating a swarm of small unmanned systems which can feed information back to the user.
In this test, the drones were launched mid-air by a trio of F/A-18 Super Hornet aircraft, then formed up and autonomously executed a series of maneuvers required by the operators. The Perdix systems connected with each other and formed the swarm on its own, without need of micromanagement from operators. The swarm could also react to reform a pattern or complete a mission even if some of the systems died, meaning that one Perdix drone failing would not cause the others to abort mission.
The test was captured by CBS’ 60 Minutes program, and the Pentagon also released its own video of the event, showing the swarming patterns and the disturbing buzzing noise that comes from being the target of the ISR systems.
The idea of swarming, autonomous systems is not a new one, and the DoD has a number of prototyping programs looking into both aerial and naval swarming options. But this test seems to be the most far-reaching example of how the technology can actually work today – and there are hints the Pentagon will look to fast-track moving the technology from demonstration to field use.
Notably, a DoD factsheet about the test notes that SCO is working with the Defense Industrial Unit‐Experimental (DIUx), the Pentagon office charged with outreach to the commercial tech community, to find companies that can produce 1,000 Perdix units before the end of the year.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.