US fighter jets drop self-healing micro-drones in field test

11 Jan 2017

A Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet jet fighter. Image: Anatoliy Lukich/Shutterstock

Future US jet fighters will likely be equipped with a swarm of hundreds of micro-drones, following the release of footage of a field test conducted in October 2016.

While enormous US Air Force drones such as the Predator continuously patrol the skies over places such as Afghanistan, the future of aerial warfare will more likely be with the deployment of micro-drones.

According to the US Department of Defense (DOD), the first successful trial of 103 Perdix micro-drones was conducted back in October 2016, when two F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets released their payload over a test site in China Lake, California.

From the footage released by the department, the drones can be seen falling out of canisters attached to the wings of the planes before quickly switching on and demonstrating “advanced swarm behaviours such as collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying and self-healing”.

Each of these Perdix drones is capable of speeds up to Mach 0.6. They can withstand temperatures of minus 10 degrees Celsius as well as the shock of being deployed from a significant height at very high speeds.

These drones would be difficult to spot with the naked eye, with a body length of just 6in and a wingspan of 11in, and would be capable of flight for up to 20 minutes.

‘They are a collective organism’

Originally designed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineering students, the Perdix drone was modified for military use by the scientists and engineers of MIT Lincoln Laboratory, starting in 2013.

“Due to the complex nature of combat, Perdix are not pre-programmed synchronised individuals; they are a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature,” said William Roper, director of the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO).

“Because every Perdix communicates and collaborates with every other Perdix, the swarm has no leader and can gracefully adapt to drones entering or exiting the team.”

By the end of this year, the US DOD and the SCO hope to build 1,000 micro-drones as well as developing the seventh-generation design that would include greater autonomous capabilities.

A Boeing F18/A Super Hornet jet fighter. Image: Anatoliy Lukich/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic