UK Army drone swarm tests hailed as ground-breaking

UK Army drone swarms

Army officials in the UK say they’ve successfully tested military use of drone swarms, hailing them for breaking new technical ground in multiple UAV operation by a single pilot.

release issued Thursday by the UK Army said its nano-Uncrewed Aerial Systems (nUAS) project conducted a series of trials using single-pilot swarms of either four or six drones. In addition to the technical capacities demonstrated in the tests, officials say the program also broke new regulatory ground. It was the first flight of multiple-UAV controlled by a single operator authorized by the country’s Military Aviation Authority, a precedent organizers hope will facilitate future approvals.

The UK Army demonstrations used two types of drone systems for swarm operation by one pilot. The first, called Atlas, involved four UAVs flown manually with a tablet serving as controller. The second, Elbit, called for the pilot to program autonomous flight of six different craft – either as part of the same mission, or flying half a dozen separate ones at once.

Those were carried out under two scenarios with differing objectives. The first was the use by UK Army pilots of drone swarms to provide unbroken 24-hour surveillance around a specific location designated for monitoring and defense. 

The other incorporated artificial intelligence applications in communications throughout the controller and command system, ensuring effective automated observation and immediate signaling of movement that needed checking out by human supervisors.

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The result, organizers say, was not only confirmation that UK Army pilots can effectively operate drone swarms on their lonesome, but also in showing that by mixing manual and automated control, the range of aerial activity performed can be multiplied.

“The stand-out feature of this event is that you are seeing a military operator control more than one drone at the same time from one single unit… adding scale and adding complexity with each drone able to carry out a separate task,” said Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Dawe, Commanding Officer of the Infantry Trials and Development Unit. “This is a real amplifier, adding capacity, force protection, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities… (which) will not only assist in our targeting but also in our strike capability, therefore making us more lethal at range which will protect our very valuable forces and people.”

Dominic Ferrett, lead engineer in the UK Army tests, called the results encouraging in demonstrating the effectiveness of drone swarm operation at its basic level – and the promise it holds down the line.

“We have now proved the concept that one person can fly six drones, thus creating a reduction in operator burden,” Ferrett said. “In the future we want one operator to control six, twelve, thirty, forty or more drones as part of a more integrated swarm. As we move further with future Army projects we look to human-machine teaming, which will start to bring in ground elements as well as air elements as a combined system.”

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