Strange things have been happening in the Californian desert. The US military has announced that it has conducted its largest-ever test into new drone-swarm technology, having launched over a hundred from the back of three F/A-18 Super Hornet jets.
103 Perdix drones, named after the Greek mythical hero who was transformed into a partridge, were tested last October. These drones have a wingspan of around 30cm, and communicate with each other via a distributed brain.
The drones are given a mission, but instead of being programmed with specific directions, the small machines work out how to complete a task for themselves. On the fly, as it were.
“Perdix are not pre-programmed synchronised individuals, they are a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature,” said William Roper, director of the Strategic Capabilities Office at the US Department of Defense.
“Because every Perdix communicates and collaborates with every other Perdix, the swarm has no leader and can gracefully adapt to drones entering or exiting the team.”
The Department of Defense released a video of the test online, which shows the jets launching the drones, and then an aerial view of the drones carrying out a series of missions. Perhaps most unsettling is the shot at the end, of the drones screeching collectively as they circle a target.
The machines are able to withstand speeds up to mach 0.6 and temperatures of -10°C, although the element of noise may need to be addressed if the Perdix drones want to be successful in their primary goal, which is thought to be surveillance.
The test mission took place on China Lake, in California, which may or may not give some clue about the intended targets of the Perdix drones’ future assignments. Talking to the BBC, Elizabeth Quintana, at UK military think tank the Royal United Services Institute, said that China has a significant amount of expertise when it comes to drone manufacturing.
“It’s going to be very interesting – it won’t just be about who has the biggest swarm, but also about who can outmanoeuvre who,” she told the broadcaster.
In 2015, the US Navy demonstrated testing of a similar drone swarm – of drones named Cicada (Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft), which are designed to be cheap to produce and disposable after a single mission.