In January 2008, five Iranian military speedboats swarmed three U.S. Navy warships passing through the Strait of Hormuz. There were some tense moments, as the Iranian boats sped around and through the American formation — and the Americans braced for a potential attack. “Unidentified surface craft, inbound,” a U.S. sailor announced. “Identify yourself,” he ordered, via radio, to the assailants, during the 20-minute encounter. (Photo: Daily Mail)
Eight years earlier, a small boat had exploded alongside the U.S. destroyer Cole, in Yemen, killing 17 sailors. Since then, the world’s navies have worried about the threat posed by large numbers of fast, cheap boats, capable of slipping past radar and other defenses, to wreak havoc on large naval formations. Somali pirates demonstrate similar tactics, on a regular basis. In April, a swarm of pirate boats attacked a Yemeni tanker convoy, capturing one vessel.
Swarms are a favorite tactic for low-tech, irregular forces, for they leverage quantity, over quality. But major militaries are also looking to capitalize on the concept, as well, especially to boost the lethality of robotic systems. Because they’re relatively cheap and can be built small and equipped with fast-thinking, computer “brains,” robots are the perfect basis for swarms.
The U.S. military is just beginning to experiment with swarming technology. This year, a “Block III” Boeing AH-64D Apache, demonstrated so-called “Level IV” robot control, whereby the chopper’s two-man crew can fully control one or more Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. In coming years, Army helicopters will be upgraded to allow them to control swarms of armed drones, particularly the land service’s new Warrior model. The swarm will scout a broad area, ahead of the helicopter, and converge to attack any emerging targets, keeping the chopper and its crew out of harm’s way.
The Navy is taking swarming, one step further, by entirely removing the human component. The Army wants a human helicopter crew to do the thinking on behalf of a drone swarm, but the Navy wants the swarm itself to identify targets, and decide which ones to attack. Augusta Systems, in West Virginia, won a $1.5-million Navy contract to design an experimental network that “would enable the vehicles and devices to act on their own, in an autonomous manner, based upon data sent from their own swarm or other swarms,” according to Defense Industry Daily.
An operational version of that network might help guide swarms of robotic boats, robotic helicopters or jet-powered, aerial drones — all of which figure in Navy plans.
In addition to planning its own swarms, the Pentagon is working on methods of countering the enemy’s swarms. For the Navy, that means equipping manned MH-60 and AH-1 helicopters and unmanned RQ-8 Fire Scout choppers to rapidly identify many, hostile boats — and destroy them, with Hellfire missiles. The Office of Naval Research’s Multi-Target Track and Terminate program has four components: 1) a wide-view radar or infrared sensor, for surveying all the potential targets in an area; 2) computer algorithms for selecting which targets represent a threat, based on shape or behavior; 3) an electro-optical camera for zooming in on the targets, for positive identification; and 4) a “multiple” laser designator, for targeting all the hostiles, simultaneously. Hellfire missiles, fired in a salvo, would home in on each designated target.
Less advanced are swarms for ground robots. The air and the sea surface are both fairly easy environments for robot operations, as they feature few obstacles. But robots on the ground must contend with rough terrain, buildings and vegetation. For that reason, most ground robots are operated, directly and singly, by a human being, in line of sight. Swarming, under those conditions, is a distant prospect.
by David Axe
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