Locust: The Navy Is Preparing To Launch Swarm Bots Out Of Cannons
The U.S. Navy will launch up to 30 synchronized drones within one minute, possibly from a single cannon-like device, in what marks a significant advance in robot autonomy. The drones, when airborne, will then unfold their wings and conduct a series of maneuvers and simulated missions with very little human guidance over the course of 90 minutes.
Navy officials announced on Tuesday that they intend to stage a key demonstration of the swarm bots from what the Navy is calling a “tube-based launcher,” essentially, a big cannon, next year.
The program, which the Navy is called Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology, or LOCUST, marks a significant advance in applications for robotic swarming software. In August, the Office of Naval Research, or ONR, which is behind the program, demonstrated a swarming configuration of 13 robotic boats on Virginia’s James River. The boats were able to perform a variety of tasks to protect a high-value ship from incoming craft.
Getting flying robots to coordinate maneuvers isn’t new. In this 2012 demo, University of Pennsylvania researchers show how they were able to turn a set of small quad helicopter drones into autonomous musicians.
But preprograming a musical flight path for consumer quad bots is different from getting fast moving military drones, possibly armed, to spontaneously and autonomously collaborate and perform missions in the air. In conversation with Defense One at Navy League’s Sea Air Space conference outside of Washington, DC, Lee Mastroianni, director for theLOCUST program, discussed some of the complex differences between swarm boats and flying swarm bots. The Navy needs robots that can join together, break apart and conduct missions individually, collaboratively, and spontaneously.
“In 3-D space you’re doing maneuvers, so that’s very complex. The other part of it is the ability to disaggregate and re-aggregate components,” he said. That means telling the drones “I need three of you to break off and go kill something or do some [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR,] come back and reform,” said Mastroianni. “It’s very, very dynamic.”
The challenge also represents an ambitious goal for shrinking onboard processing capabilities. “I can’t put a mainframe computer on there. It’s a case of needing very efficient processing,” he said.
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