The UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) has launched a public competition this week to evaluate how swarms of tiny drones could be used in future warfare.
The "Many drones make light work" competition, in partnership with government agency Innovate UK, calls for proposals on how lone drone operators could command UAS (Unmanned Air Systems) swarms in "contested environments." The swarms would be tasked with jamming enemy communications, tracking targeted individuals, and area mapping.
Interestingly, the MoD wants swarms of UAS that can be assembled just before a mission, with the technical requirements of the drones shifting for different mission types. One mission could perhaps call on a swarm of drones to relay enemy location information to nearby troops, while another could call on a swarm to track an enemy convoy.
"Ultimately, we want more than 10 UAS to operate in a co-ordinated and closely coupled way to achieve military effect across the electromagnetic spectrum"
A total of £3 million ($4 million) is up for grabs, split across several projects that will each be allocated between £40,000 and £80,000 ($50,000 and $100,000) in the first phase, with further funding available to projects that make it through to the second stage.
The specific problem the MoD is looking to solve is that of scale. While UAS are used the world over for both military and civilian purposes, these systems generally require one operator to directly pilot one vehicle, or at least closely manage the operation of a small number of vehicles.
The ability to operate a swarm of vehicles, considered by the MoD to be between 10 and 20 aircraft in a coordinated, integrated system, could "be of great benefit to defence and security," according to the government body.
There are plenty of benefits to using swarms. Firstly there's the safety in numbers aspect: If one of these drones gets shot down or becomes otherwise inoperable the mission can still continue with the remaining drones. Swarms work together, too. The MoD calls this idea "fractionation," the concept of splitting up a task that is normally performed by a single platform across multiple platforms.
"Ultimately, we want more than 10 UAS to operate in a co-ordinated and closely coupled way to achieve military effect across the electro-magnetic (EM) spectrum (in other words ranging from visible frequencies through to low frequency radio waves), in a contested environment, and all managed by a single operator," reads the competition requirements.
While more conventional drones such as the US military's Predator have been able to jam enemy radars and conduct other electronic attacks for some time now, this is the MoD's first foray into using swarms of smaller drones for electronic warfare.
The proposals for the UAS swarms must use common open systems architectures, thus speeding up integration and building. They've got to be cheap and lightweight too, with the MoD looking for drones that weigh around 2 kg or 20 kg.
"We think it's unlikely that a single size of air vehicle platform can cost-effectively provide the solution," read the instructions.