Pentagon tested world's largest swarm of autonomous micro-drones

The Defense Department successfully tested a swarm of 103 Perdix micro-drones

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Have you ever seen a starling murmuration as the flock twists and turns in fantastic aerial acrobatics as if the mass shares one brain? Next time you think you see one, look again. It might not be a swarm of birds, but a swarm of 3D-printed, autonomous micro-drones.

The U.S. Department of Defense announced a successful test of 103 Perdix drones. Granted, the drones are not a beautiful product of nature like starlings, but the swarm does act like a “collective organism” that shares a single brain for decision making.

Perdix is a surveillance tool that has a 6.5-inch body, with a wing span of 11.8 inches, and weighs about 10.2 ounces (290 grams). It runs on batteries, has a built-in camera, can stay airborne for longer than 20 minutes, and can reach speeds of 46 to 69 mph. The drones, which have 2.6-inch propellers, can handle being launched via flare dispensers on fighter planes at speeds of Mach 6, and they can operate at temperatures as low as 14⁰ F (-10⁰ C).

During a test last year, 103 Perdix drones were launched from three F/A-18 Super Hornets over China Lake, California. According to the fact sheet (pdf), the world’s largest micro-drone “swarm demonstrated advanced behaviors like collective decision‐making, adaptive formation flying, and self‐healing.”

The fact sheet explained:

Perdix are not preprogrammed, synchronized individuals. They share a distributed brain for decision making and adapt to each other, and the environment, much like swarms in nature. Because every Perdix communicates and collaborates with every other Perdix, the swarm has no leader and can gracefully adapt to changes in drone numbers. This allows this team of small inexpensive drones to perform missions once done by large expensive ones.

The flight was also documented by 60 Minutes, although the program almost gave up on the story as “the Perdix drone flies too fast – upwards of 40-50 miles per hour – and too unpredictably for a conventional news camera to follow.” They ended up capturing the “complicated swarm maneuver” with a camera used to capturing “a golf ball as it soars to the fairway.”

670 Perdix have already been flown since MIT first developed the drones and named them after a Greek mythical character who was turned into a bird. Perdix is now in its sixth generation, with hardware and software being “updated in design generations much like smartphones.”

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter stated, “This is the kind of cutting-edge innovation that will keep us a step ahead of our adversaries. This demonstration will advance our development of autonomous systems.”

The Defense Department said it was interested in finding companies that could quickly build 1,000 units this year.

Like it or not, this is one aspect of the “future battle network.” The Pentagon says humans will “always be in the loop,” but the “Gen 7” design that is in the works is expected to include “more advanced autonomy.”

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