A New Flight Formation: German Pilots and Drone Swarms

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The German military (the Bundeswehr) is probing new frontiers in the advancement of drone technology, partnering with Airbus Defense and Space, as well as multiple start-ups to explore the application of drone swarms in defense tactics.

The objective of these cutting-edge trials is to assess the feasibility of utilizing drones to shield fighter aircraft in flight. However, this venture requires more than just state-of-the-art drones; it necessitates the integration of sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) systems capable of ensuring autonomous and safe flights for the drones.

Swarm technology refers to deploying multiple drones or other unmanned systems that work in unison, akin to a swarm of bees or a flock of birds. Leveraging the power of collective operation, these swarms can cover vast expanses, providing reconnaissance or launching attacks. The autonomous functioning of each unit within the swarm further enhances its capabilities.

Globally, swarm technology has gained significance in military applications. Major powers like the United States, China, and Russia are deeply invested in such research and development. Chinese innovation, for example, demonstrated impressive strides six years prior when they proved their ability to maneuver over a thousand drones in a swarm, as attested by Lorenz Meier, founder of Auterion, a Swiss drone manufacturer that has developed similar systems for the US military.

The European Union, in a bid to stay at the forefront of this innovation, has initiated a joint project termed FCAS (Future Combat Air System). The FCAS concept revolves around a central fighter aircraft designed to collaborate with drones for mission execution.

Contemplating ‘Kamikaze Drones’

The French army is exploring the possibility of acquiring medium-range remote-controlled drones. These units, often referred to as “kamikaze drones” or loitering munitions, are essentially flying munitions, activated by the operator on target. On command, these drones crash into the target and detonate. Two consortiums, one led by Nexter Systems, a French government-owned company, and the other by MBDA, are finalists in this endeavor. Each has a distinct approach, but both recognize the crucial role of autonomy and swarm operation.

The Pursuit of Autonomy

The ability of drone swarms to function autonomously is critical for their real-world application. It would be an impossible task for a pilot to manually control hundreds, let alone thousands, of drones. Hence, Bundeswehr and Airbus are examining the potential for AI to automate the swarm operation while maintaining coordination with the pilot.

A key milestone in this initiative has been the conceptualization of KITU 1 (Künstliche Intelligenz für taktische unbemannte Flugsysteme) – a project aiming to develop artificial intelligence for unmanned tactical flight systems. This project is now advancing into its second phase, with practical tests being carried out. Collaborators on this venture include Munich-based drone manufacturer Quantum Systems and Spleenlab, a Thuringian firm specializing in machine learning and autonomous systems.

Both were chosen for their expertise in edge computing, a vital capability that allows military systems to process data locally with AI, even under enemy interference.

The ultimate objective is mission-based command and control, where the drone swarm is given a specific task, such as detecting enemy assets in a designated area. The swarm would then autonomously decide the best route and actions for each drone.

A Revolutionary Technology Not Without Its Risks

Despite the promising capabilities of drone swarms, their deployment does not come without potential risks. If the proprietary software were to leak, malicious entities could potentially construct a drone swarm for nefarious purposes. Further, the threat of losing control of a drone swarm is a significant concern.

Hungarian researchers have conducted similar research on autonomous drone control algorithms. Led by academic and professor Tamás Vicsek from the Department of Biological Physics at ELTE University of Technology, the team created an algorithm capable of autonomously controlling a large number of drones, inspired by bird flock behaviors. Their system successfully managed 30 drones physically and thousands in simulations.

In conclusion, while drone swarms offer an exciting new frontier in military technology, caution must be exercised. Rigorous testing, stringent security measures, and careful control mechanisms are necessary to harness their potential fully and safely.

Source: handelsblatt.com

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