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How the Pentagon's Quest For Insect-Sized Combat Drones Could End Up Saving Lives

The military wants to develop drones the size of insects or birds for the purpose of attacking enemies, but that same technology could also reduce collateral damage.
December 30, 2014, 12:45am
Photo by Central Intelligence Agency

Last Monday, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) finally told Santa what it really wanted for Christmas: "Fast Lightweight Autonomy."

Essentially, the folks at the Department of Defense agency that develops new military technology noticed that birds and insects fly around all the time and don't crash into things nearly as often as you'd expect. Then they decided it would be really, really cool if drones could do that too.


Their inspiration was the goshawk, a bird of prey that can fly at speeds up to 55 miles per hour through dense forests.

It bears a remarkable resemblance to the speeder bike chase scene in Return of the Jedi, no?

There are some pretty obvious reasons to have technology that can prevent high-speed collisions with trees. But why focus on drones the size of birds and insects? Well, a huge advantage to tiny drones is that they're hard to spot — which provides clear advantages when it comes to reconnaissance. And, as anyone who has gone 10 rounds with a flyswatter against a fly can attest, small flying objects can be extremely difficult to track and kill.

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If being agile and hard to swat is good for reconnaissance, it's spectacularly good for bird- and insect-sized killer drones. From Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds to the "tracker jackers" in The Hunger Games, Hollywoodhas shown that small, hard-to-hit flying things are terrifying when they're trying to kill you.

The idea of such a creature isn't that far-fetched. Consider the Asian giant hornet, a real-life bug that is about an inch and a half long, and dispenses flesh-dissolving venom. Imagine dropping a bomb with 1,000 killer, insect-sized drones and sending them off to go find soldiers hiding in foxholes and bunkers. That's much easier than digging out those guys the old-fashioned way in house-to-house fighting, and not nearly as gauche as nerve gas.


Generally speaking, the technology for making drones that size or smaller already exists. One huge problem is that tiny drones require little drone brains, which make them so stupid they can't avoid flying into walls — at least without the aid of a human pilot.

Getting past the need for a pilot is important. If you're trying to bomb something with a thousand little killer drones and don't have autonomy, that means keeping a thousand remote pilots on-call somewhere. But if you can get the things to fly around and do your bidding autonomously like good little minions, then it's a whole different matter. It's one reason why this capability is so interesting to DARPA.

Granted, it will likely take a decade or more before the technology exists to keep insect-sized drones from crashing into stuff, but where is this headed in the long term? If we assume the capability exists to develop technology good enough to replace human pilots, we can also imagine some really futuristic capabilities.

Imagine the bomb with 1,000 killer, insect-sized drones, but rather than just hunting down everyone within a half mile, the drones have the smarts to limit their attacks to people holding guns or other weapons. Instant disarmament! Even better, zero collateral damage!

Of course, the military already has something in its arsenal that can disarm every soldier within a certain radius: nuclear weapons. But the problem with nukes is that they're famously indiscriminate.


This photo shows a room full of 30 million dead people. Read more here.

Generally, the problem isn't creating a more explosive bomb, but wrestling with the lethality paradox. You want to have absolute certainty that you're going to successfully whack each and every enemy in the vicinity. On the other hand, you want to be sure that you haven't accidentally killed or blown up anything unintentionally. The problem is that most steps to ensure the killing of bad guys usually come at the price of increasing the chances that an innocent will get caught in the crossfire.

Improvements in weapons accuracy and precision (i.e. smart bombs) offer one way out of this paradox. A more accurate bomb not only means you're more likely to hit what you're aiming at — you can also use a smaller bomb to hit the same target.

Larger bombs are generally hedges against near misses. A bigger boom increases odds that the explosion will take out the target. If you can radically increase the accuracy of a weapon by using better sensors and targeting, you don't need to create a massive explosion. Smaller blasts and fewer misses reduce collateral damage.

But the growth of information technology and computing doesn't just mean more accurate sensors, it also means expanding the reach and impact of information warfare. As demonstrated by the summer's fighting in Gaza, collateral damage is an increasingly valuable tool in information warfare.

In a happy and perfect world, it would be awesome if bullets only hurt bad guys and left everyone else alone. That's pretty hard to do with actual bullets. But what if you slowed those bullets down a bit and gave them some autonomy? Maybe let them travel under their own power, so they could actually go around a corner to find bad guys? Well then maybe you'd get something that starts to look a lot like a killer, insect-sized drone.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Image via Wikimedia Commons