Drones: Swarming Near You Soon

A Flying Robot Reality

Drones have been in and out of the news constantly, whether they’re delivering parcels or spying on potentially suspicious individuals – drones are sophisticated, essentially autonomous robots that can fly while navigating with GPS.

What happens when you put lots of them together to create a so-called ‘drone swarm’? Well, as shown by a video released earlier in the month, these autonomous flying machines have now been put to task in the American military. The video shows a fleet of 104 drones in testing at the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in California. The U.S. army say that they will be used for surveillance. Whether or not this is true, drones are back in the public eye as global governments wonder what else could be done with the new fleet. For many, the idea of airborne surveillance robots with names like ‘Predator’ and ‘Reaper’ is terrifying – but, now that drone swarms have been cleared for testing, it’s something we need to prepare for. It’s also something that other sectors will take advantage of, as some have already.

Drone swarms in the military
The military has been using drones for years. The U.S. army laps up technology, with drones being no exception. Drone swarming however, is something fairly new. In 2015, the Advanced Robotic Systems Engineering Laboratory (ARSENL) launched a 50-strong drone swarm – a world record at the time. The U.S. isn’t the only country to have invested in drone technology. At the end of last year, a fleet of 67 Chinese drones debuted at the China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition. Apparently, their main purpose is to carry out intelligence missions. Further applications could include search and rescue operations, and decidedly more aggressive uses like carrying – and presumably dropping – bombs. It’s likely that drones will become weapons, and effective ones at that.

In 2015, the U.S. Navy openly announced the development and testing of LOCUST (Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology). In short, LOCUST is an aircraft that fires drone after drone at the enemy to overwhelm them. It’s hard not to be unsettled by that thought.

Drone swarms won’t just be confined to the military. The agricultural industry has quietly used drones for years, collecting aerial photos of crops – more drones equals more info.

Amazon has been pushing for legislation to allow drone deliveries. In July 2015, the company suggested creating a dedicated airspace for testing a fleet of delivery drones. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) were reluctant to grant this request, however, the service – called Amazon Prime Air, was recently trialled in Cambridge, UK.

The deliveries were limited in range but mark an important first step in the establishment of an entirely new courier method. Amazon believe drone swarming will become the norm within the next seven years, and with military testing of similar technology currently under way, it seems that soon drones will be everywhere.

Disruptive drones
With potential applications in so many industries, drone swarms will undoubtedly bring disruption. Obviously, from the military angle – other countries are going to start developing their own drone fleets too, if they haven’t already. The use of unmanned, autonomous drone swarms in military operations will contribute to the changing nature of warfare. The implications of autonomous drone weapons are huge, not least from an ethical standpoint.

Drone swarming in other sectors will also be incredibly disruptive. For example, if Amazon Prime Air is successful, it will disrupt existing courier services and lure customers away from other sites. If applied to production and manufacturing, IoT-connected drones could eventually remove the need for overseers and foremen in factories.

The widespread use of drone swarms may enhance crime prevention by giving organisations like the police extra eyes in the sky (some private detectives already use drones to watch their marks), but, at a cost of reduced privacy – is this something we are willing to pay?

Responsible Drone Development

The concept of a drone swarm may be intimidating but there is merit to their use. . . so long as the right controls are put in place. It’s clear that drone swarming will have some place in the military, contributing to the technological changes that are transforming global armies. This is likely to include dropping bombs but also carrying aid and supplies to dangerous areas.

War aside, drone swarms will be used in numerous other industries, but which sectors will truly benefit from is yet to be seen.

One thing seems certain – if the first drone fleet you see doesn’t belong to an army, then it will probably be delivering a parcel for Amazon. But before drones become a regular sight, there are some important issues to be addressed. Drones are not still struggle in difficult weather conditions, and at the moment they can only carry very small items. There’s also the question of public opinion. Will we accept the mass use of drones and will we have any choice?

How else might drone swarms change the future? Does, or could, your business use drones – and if so, how? How long will it be before drone swarms are here? Comment below with your thoughts.