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. Now the navy is 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. In many ways, this was the best UAV for this kind of thing. Since 2004 the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have been using and perfecting this lightweight UAV, equipped with high resolution day and night video cameras. Scan Eagle was originally designed to assist fishing boats seeking to find schools of tuna.Since 2003 Scan Eagle UAVs have spent over 30,000 hours in the air. Most of this was for U.S. Marine Corps units. But the navy was also encouraged by its tests, enough so to equip ships operating off the Somali coast, to fight piracy.
The ScanEagle UAV weighs 18 kg (40 pounds), has a three meter (ten foot) wingspan and uses a new video technology (PixonVision), which provides greater resolution than other video cameras. This makes it easier for the UAV, flying over the ocean, to spot the small speed boats that the pirates use to stalk, attack and board merchant ships.
ScanEagle can stay in the air for up to 15 hours per flight, and fly as high as 5,200 meters (16,000 feet). The aircraft carries an optical system that is stabilized to keep the cameras focused on an object while the UAV moves. The UAV can operate at least a hundred kilometers from the controller. The ScanEagle is launched from a catapult and landed via a wing hook that catches a rope hanging from a fifty foot pole. This makes it possible to operate the UAV from the helicopter pad on the stern (rear) of a warship. Each ScanEagle costs about $100,000, and is still widely used by commercial fishing, ocean survey and research ships.
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.