Air Weapons: LOCUST Powered Swarmware

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November 2, 2016: There’s another lightweight expendable UAV entering service. The 5.9 kg (13 pound) Coyote was designed for use by patrol aircraft or helicopters as it can be launched from the sealed tube it is stored and shipped in. Coyote is battery operated and has endurance of 60-90 minutes. It can operate 36 kilometers from the operator and cruises at about 100 kilometers an hour (1.8 kilometers a minute). Coyote can be programmed to follow a set pattern and send images back to the operator. Max altitude is 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) and payload is 900 gr (two pounds). Like earlier UAVs of this type it can carry explosives instead of sensors. But Coyote is also designed to operate as part of a swarm of UAVs searching or attacking together.

This is part of the American LOCUST (Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology) technology where dozens of these small UAVs can be launched quickly and communicate with each other for attack, recon or EW (Electronic Warfare) missions. This form of cooperative software technology creates a form of artificial intelligence that can quickly adapt to a rapidly changing situations and get the mission done before the enemy can defend themselves.

Since the 1980s the U.S. Department of Defense has been spending more time and effort on developing technology to make it possible for autonomous robots to communicate and cooperate in maintaining the most efficient “swarm” of robotic sensors or weapons. Progress has been slow but successful. Recently the navy has been testing swarms of small submarine detecting surface and underwater vehicles. The air force has already developed swarming systems for UAVs as well as some types of aerial decoys. The army is doing the same with small robotic vehicles used for surveillance and security. After more than half a century of theoretical and practical work the swarms are about to enter service.

The three services have already developed tactical uses for the swarms. In the 1990s the navy began developing tactics for using swarms of aerial, surface and underwater unmanned vehicles to precede large fleet movements to ensure safe transit of the U.S. warships. The air force already has tactics for using swarms for penetrating complex air defense systems.

You could see this coming. For example in 2011 an American firm conducted a successful test of UAV swarming software. In practical terms, this is flight control and search software that enables two or more UAVs to organize and carry out the most efficient search of an area, once ordered to do so by an operator who controls all of them. Two Scan Eagle UAVs were used for the test. The swarming technology also has commercial applications, for any situation in which you want a land or sea area searched quickly and thoroughly using UAVs. But the military is particularly in need of this new tech, as there are often a number of different UAVs in an area, and the swarm tech enables all these UAVs to quickly participate in an automated search, where the strengths and limitations of each UAV are taken into account.

Not all of these small expendable UAVs are built with just swarming in mind. In early 2016 Israel introduced Green Dragon, a lightweight UAV that is launched from canisters that can be carried by infantry or used from boxes holding 12 or 16 Green Dragon canisters. These boxes can be put in the back of a vehicle and launched by a nearby operator. The 15 kg (33 pound) Green Dragon is battery powered and has a two hour endurance. Green Dragon can operate up to 40 kilometers from the operator. The three kg (6.5 pound) warhead can be guided by the operator to the target with great precision (within a meter/three feet of the aiming point). The operator controls Green Dragon with a device about the same size as a tablet computer.

Green Dragon gives infantry their own air force and is similar to the U.S. Army Switchblade UAV systems sent to Afghanistan in 2009 for secret field testing. This was very successful and the troops demanded more, and more, and more. Initially, Switchblade was mainly used largely by Special Forces and other special operations troops. In 2011, after a year of successful field testing, the army ordered over a hundred Switchblade UAVs for troop use and last year ordered more as regular infantry units got their hands on it and demanded more.

Back in 2012 the U.S. Army and Marine Corps ordered hundreds of the new Switchblade micro-UAV/cruise missiles after combat zone testing proved so successful. Switchblade was developed for the army but the marines apparently noted the success that soldiers and SOCOM (Special Operations Command) had with this system and ordered them as well. Switchblade was very popular with troops in Afghanistan and with SOCOM in all sorts of places they won’t discuss in detail. Switchblade is a one kilogram (2.2 pound) expendable (used only once) UAV that can be equipped with explosives. The Switchblade is launched from its shipping and storage tube, at which point wings flip out, a battery powered propeller starts spinning and a vidcam begins broadcasting images to the controller. The Switchblade is operated using the same gear the larger (two kg/4.4 pound) Raven UAV employs. A complete Switchblade system (missile, container, and controller) weighs 5.5 kg (12.1 pounds).

UAVs like Switchblade and Green Dragon can also be adapted to operate in a LOCUST system.

 


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