Kyle Mizokami — Popular Mechanics Jan 9, 2017
An arm of the Pentagon charged with fielding critical new technologies has developed a drone that not only carries out its mission without human piloting, but can talk to other drones to collaborate on getting the job done. The Perdix autonomous drone operates in cooperative swarms of 20 or more, working together towards a single goal.
Named after a character from Greek mythology that was changed into a partridge, the bird-sized Perdix drones were featured on the news program “60 Minutes” last night, January 8. In footage taken over the skies of Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, a trio of F/A-18 Super Hornet fighters release a total of 103 Perdix drones from small pods mounted on hardpoints on both wings. The drones are capable of withstanding ejection at speeds of up to Mach 0.6 and temperatures as low as minus 10 degrees Celsius.
GPS data, combined with a map of the area, shows that during the October 26 test the fighters released their Perdix drones in a long line their flight path. The drones formed up at a preselected point and then headed out to perform four different missions. Three of the missions involved hovering over a target while the fourth mission involved forming a 100-meter-wide circle in the sky.
According to the Department of Defense, the demonstration showed off Perdix’s collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying, and self-healing abilities. The drones collectively decide that a mission has been accomplished, fly on to the next mission, and carry out that one. The benefit of a swarm is that if one drone drops out-and a few appear to crash-the group can rearrange itself to maintain coverage.
Developed by students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Perdix drones are inexpensive drones that draw inspiration from the commercial smartphone industry. The drones feature two sets of small wings, making them look like World War I fighter planes. The biplane configuration reduces wing weight and wingspan. The wings are made of carbon fiber and the fuselage is made of a kevlar composite. The drone is powered by a lithium polymer battery pack powering a rear-facing push propeller.
Perdix has been a known program since March 2016, when the Washington Post revealed footage of a F-16 fighter releasing 20 drones over Alaska. At the time, however, the Post stated the drones had already been undergoing flight testing for two years.
There are a multitude of uses for such a drone swarm. The drones could be released by fighters to provide reconnaissance for troops on the ground, hunting enemy forces and reporting their location. They could also jam enemy communications, form a wide-area flying communications network, or provide persistent surveillance of a particular area. They could be loaded with small explosive charges and attack individual enemy soldiers. In air-to-air combat, they could spoof enemy radars on aircraft, ground vehicles, and missiles by pretending to be much larger targets.
The drones are a pet project of the Strategic Capabilities Office, which is in turn part of the Pentagon’s Third Offset Strategy. Third Offset is designed to use America’s technological edge and combine it with new ideas to maintain dominance against potential adversaries. Other concepts include the “Arsenal Plane“, which uses older, larger aircraft such as the B-52 to act as a flying arsenal for newer planes like the F-35, carrying a vast number of weapons that can be fired on cue.