Home / Threats / Counter drone swarm technologies, required as drone swarms being employed for surveillance and delivering weaponized explosives

Counter drone swarm technologies, required as drone swarms being employed for surveillance and delivering weaponized explosives

Criminals have been using drones in a variety of ways. They use them to prepare house break-ins, observe larger targets, spot security gaps, and determine security guard patterns. Militant organizations have started employing drones to further their terrorism. The small drones such as a quadcopter or model airplane are readily available and they are increasingly used by terrorists to retrofit them, giving the aircraft the ability to deliver weaponized explosives or hazardous materials. In their hands, drones could, fly IEDs through the air to a target, or disperse a biological or chemical agent while its pilot remains safely distanced from contamination.


Drones may be small – some weighing less than five pounds – but they can cause devastating results if they are armed with weapons, and when there are 10…20…100… in close proximity. Drone swarms can be remotely operated from miles away, fly autonomously, or they may accompany ground vehicles and other aircraft that attempt to harm our troops. And only one of these remote-controlled weapons needs to get through to be potentially lethal.


Terrorists and other militants can operate small, inexpensive drones loaded with weapons to threaten U.S. and allied forces on the ground,” said Daniel Miller, chief engineer for High Energy Laser Integration at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works. “Because of their size, these drones are difficult to see, hard to catch on radar, and hard to shoot at with conventional weapons, particularly in swarms.”


With the exponential growth of swarm robotics, and Artificial Intelligence (AI), more and more countries have been moving towards a technology that enables a single pilot to control multiple unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) at once – the drone swarming technology. Inspired by swarms of insects, drone swarms are built of multiple units of small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are able “to self-organize, to collaborate, and to complete multiple tasks together”.


This was largely influenced by military drones becoming more sophisticated and advanced, i.e. much smaller, lighter, cheaper and more jam-resistant, as they are capable to operate at low and medium altitudes. Consequently to these developments, drone swarms are now deployable both for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR), offensive and defensive missions as they have greater ISR and longer range and endurance. UAV Swarms are now employed by the military to find, fix, and communicate precise target location of ground, sea, and air targets; they can serve as weapons platforms to attack air defense systems from multiple axes; or they can pass missile targeting data to any platform carrying a counter-air missile.


Emerging threat of Drone  Swarms

Countries are already putting together very large groupings of drones. The China Academy of Electronics and Information Technology tested the launch and employment of multiple sUAS in swarm formations from both ground-based and airborne launchers in September 2020.


Additionally, the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have conducted extensive testing in recent years, using large numbers of drones in coordination with each other to perform reconnaissance, fly in formation, or potentially drop munitions on targets. In October 2016, the United States Strategic Capabilities Office launched 103 Perdix drones out of an F/A-18 Super Hornet. The drones communicate with one another using a distributed brain, assembling into a complex formation, traveling across a battlefield, and reforming into a new formation.


The US Naval Postgraduate School is also exploring the potential for swarms of one million drones operating at sea, under sea, and in the air. China already holds a Guinness World Record for flying 3,051 pre-programmed drones at once.


A September 2020 exercise revealed that Russia also continues to pursue integrated teaming with three models of sUAS to strike ground targets. Although that is not drone swarming per se, a Russia expert notes, “At this point there is lots of research in Russia on the UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] swarm use, and there is testing and evaluation of such concepts.”


In India’s recent Army Day Parade, the government demonstrated what it claimed is a true drone swarm of 75 drones and expressed the intent to scale the swarm to more than 1,000 units.


Swarm of drones are also being considered by military for future A2/AD environment. Future wars will be fought with swarms of expendable, disaggregated, intelligent systems rather than the big, expensive weapon platforms the U.S. has relied on for fifty years, said William Roper, the lead of the Pentagon’s semi-secret Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO), adding that he believes the Air Force will have a greater challenge adjusting to this new reality than the other services. The end goal, in Roper’s mind, is to limit the danger to individual operators. Rather than send in a wave of manned planes for the first day of combat, the SCO head said, send in wave after wave of cheap, disposable systems that come with no risk of losing a U.S. service member.


In April 2021, The U.S. Navy disclosed that it has destroyed a surface vessel with a swarm of drones for the first time. The strike was carried out during the Unmanned Systems Integrated Battle Problem (UxS IBP) 21 exercise conducted off the coast of California. The swarm attack, which was directed against a target identified by an unmanned surface vessel, was one of several unmanned systems teaming operations during the exercise. These included a combination of unmanned aircraft and boats identifying an enemy vessel that was engaged with an SM-6 anti-ship missile from the guided-missile destroyer USS John Finn. “Our goal for this exercise is to evaluate these unmanned systems and how they can actually team with manned systems,” Rear Adm. Jim Aiken, technical manager for the exercise told a press briefing.


Criminals and militants have now started using swarms of commercially available drones thereby enhancing their effectiveness and lethality. By deploying swarm of consumer drones they become more viable as a weapon. They could easily overwhelm a small defensive position because they would represent too many targets moving too fast to successfully repel.


Drone swarms will likely be extremely useful for carrying out mass casualty attacks. They may be useful as strategic deterrence weapons for states without nuclear weapons and as assassination weapons for terrorists. In fact, would-be assassins launched two drones against Prime Minister Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela in 2018. Although he escaped, the attack helps illustrate the potential of drone swarms. If the assassins launched 30 drones instead, the outcome may have been different.


In 2018, the Russian Ministry of Defence claimed  its forces in Syria were attacked  by a swarm of home-made drones – the first time such a coordinated assault has been reported in a military action. According to the Ministry of Defence, Russian forces at the Khmeimim air base and Tartus naval facility “successfully warded off a terrorist attack with massive application of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)”. Rather than being quadcopters, the most popular design for commercial drones, the craft involved in these attacks resembled hobbyists’ model aircraft. They had three-meter wingspans, were built crudely of wood and plastic, and were powered by lawnmower engines. Each carried ten home-made shrapnel grenades under its wings.


“As evening fell, the Russia air defence forces detected 13 unidentified small-size air targets at a significant distance approaching the Russian military bases,” the Ministry said in a statement. “Ten assault drones were approaching the Khmeimim air base, and another three – the CSS point in Tartus.” Six of the assault force drones were intercepted by Russian electronic warfare units, with three of the UAVs being brought to land outside the base, while the remaining three exploded on contact with the ground. Another seven drones were “eliminated” by Pantsir-S anti-aircraft missiles fired by the Russians, with the bases reporting no casualties or damage, the statement explains.


Drone swarms are also likely to be highly effective delivery systems for chemical and biological weapons through integrated environmental sensors and mixed arms tactics (e.g. combining conventional and chemical weapons in a single swarm), worsening already fraying norms against the use of these weapons.


Counter-Drone swarm technologies

The Department of Defense (DOD) and the U.S. Government face a significant national security challenge in adversarial use of small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS). The available technology to create swarms of these capabilities results in multilayered and unmanageable threats.


Their low operational altitude along with small size, small RCS and small IR signature of the UAV makes it a difficult target for most of the common air defense systems such as antiaircraft guns and shoulder-fired IR missiles. Many drone detection and neutralization technologies are being developed from shoulder-mounted launcher system to physically capture it, silent cyber weapon that floors a drone instantly, anti drone cannons, Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) like jamming of command and control links and GPS spoofing, counter drone Directed Energy Weapons both laser based and electromagnetic weapons.


Most counter-UAS systems under development are focused on today’s threat, which relies on radio frequency (RF)-based remote control or global position system (GPS)-based navigation. However, the next evolution of sUAS will not require GPS nor active communications to accomplish their missions. These vehicles will be capable of navigating by visual means or other methods, performing synchronized actions that allow large groups to coordinate an attack against one or more moving targets and be used as intelligence assets or as weapons-carrying platforms. An effective counter-UAS system must be able to defend against today’s and tomorrow’s threats in a range of operating environments and adapt to evolving sUAS technologies and tactics.


Drone swarms worsen the risks posed by a lethal autonomous weapon. Even if the risk of a well-designed, tested, and validated autonomous weapon hitting an incorrect target were just 0.1 percent, that would still imply a substantial risk when multiplied across thousands of drones. As military AI expert Paul Scharre rightly noted, the frequency of autonomous weapons’ deployment and use matters, too; a weapon used frequently has more opportunity to err. And, as countries rush to develop these weapons, they may not always develop well-designed, tested, or validated machines.


As shown during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, fleets of simultaneously launched next generation small drones will be a key feature of future military operations; potentially, if armed with shotguns and weapons of mass destruction, they would not only blind the enemy’s air defence and missile systems but also be capable to perform air-to-air and air-to-ground strikes, which would destroy anything on their way – war fighters, armoured vehicles, ship vessels, and aircrafts (Venable, 2020). Therefore, the successful development of counter drone technology, which will be able to effectively defend “suddenly vulnerable troops, tanks and ships”from drone swarms will become essential (Wolfgang, 2020).


To eliminate drone threats, we rely on three steps: Detect. Identify. Defeat.

Detect:  First, a radar would detect the threat and communicate that data through a battle management system, which would trigger a ‘kill chain’ to begin its execution.

Identify:  As part of the kill chain, operators would monitor the progress of the targets, and identify whether they are friendly or unfriendly.

Defeat:  To defeat the threats designated as “unfriendly,” troops would activate the directed energy weapon like a laser weapon system or high-power microwave, or choose to use a cyber system like ICARUS, to take down the threat.


Laser-directed energy weapon

High-power lasers also provide an effective counter-swarm capability for their ability to rapidly defeat small and maneuvering targets by destroying the drone’s airframe, energy source, optics, or electronic circuits. The ability to “fire” multiple shots in quick succession at low cost makes lasers suitable for Very Short-Range Air Defense (VSHORAD)missions and countering small swarms of several drones.


Lockheed Martin engineers are collaborating with customers and academia to research, develop and implement the technology that will detect and defeat swarms. “We are currently developing a 60-kilowatt system that combines multiple fiber lasers to generate the high power weapon beam,” said Rob Afzal, senior fellow with Lockheed Martin’s Laser and Sensor systems division. Because the system relies on many modular fiber lasers, it is easily scalable to meet different levels of power. With this parallel approach, there is no single point of failure that will compromise the laser’s power and functionality – as long as power exists. The laser weapon system can fire over and over, essentially creating an unlimited magazine of ‘bullets.’


Contrary to popular belief, the laser is actually invisible to the naked eye. Once it starts up, it is steadily sent through a beam control system that ensures it can accurately aim, target and destroy the threat – at the speed of light. Our high power laser approach operates with an efficiency that generates less heat and can be contained in smaller packages than previous laser technology, said Afzal, which means it can serve on board multiple platforms.


“We are currently developing a 60-kilowatt system that combines multiple fiber lasers to generate the high power weapon beam,” said Rob Afzal, senior fellow with Lockheed Martin’s Laser and Sensor systems division.


Because the system relies on many modular fiber lasers, it is easily scalable to meet different levels of power. With this parallel approach, there is no single point of failure that will compromise the laser’s power and functionality – as long as power exists. The laser weapon system can fire over and over, essentially creating an unlimited magazine of ‘bullets.’


Our high power laser approach operates with an efficiency that generates less heat and can be contained in smaller packages than previous laser technology, said Afzal, which means it can serve on board multiple platforms.


Cyber weapon

In addition to laser weapon systems, a team of engineers has developed a cyber solution to defeat small drone threats, led by Mike Panczenko, director of engineering for Lockheed Martin’s Cyber Solutions business. Built from internal investments, the ICARUS™ system can identify and intercept commercially available drones. Its multi-spectral sensor system detects and characterizes incoming drones within seconds, before using cyber electromagnetic activity to disable it or allowing the operator to take control of the drone and move it to a safe area. “ICARUS is part of the full-spectrum cybersecurity environment by acting in a more offensive capacity,” said Panczenko. “The idea is to counter the drone before it becomes a threat to our warfighters and citizens.”


DARPA  launched Mobile Force Protection (MFP) program in 2017  focussing on a challenge of increasing concern to the U.S. military: thwarting the proliferation of small, unmanned aircraft systems. These systems – which include fixed- or rotary-wing aircraft and have numerous advantages such as portability, low cost, commercial availability, and easy upgradeability – pose a fast-evolving array of dangers for U.S. ground and maritime convoys. The potential $63 million project seeks ways to defend against not only today’s radio-controlled and GPS-guided weaponized UAVs, but also against future UAVs that navigate by visual means in large groups to gather intelligence and coordinate attacks against one or more high-value moving targets. In recent tests in June 2021 at Eglin Air Force Base, DARPA’s Mobile Force Protection (MFP) program demonstrated a Counter-Unmanned Air System (C-UAS) multilayer defense architecture to defeat unauthorized drone intrusions over military installations or operations.


Microwave weapon

The EMP device, known as a ‘flux compression generator’, is constructed of a coil woven into an air-tight cylinder. The cylinder is filled with ionized lithium gas that establishes a strong magnetic field during activation. The cylinder is compressed by an explosive charge, accelerating the ionised gas molecules through an increased magnetic field that generates a powerful electromagnetic burst in the terawatt regime. The spherical EMP destroys the interceptor UAV and disables any electronic systems in its vicinity.


Reusable high-power electromagnetic effectors employ microwave emitters of different designs to deliver energy bursts that can disable electronic circuits from a distance. Initially, these were large, truck-sized systems that required powerful generators and cooling to produce the desired effect. Most land-based systems were directional, while the more compact systems covered a spherical pattern based on the explosive-generated power burst. Recent advancements in high-power solid-state HPM have matured new HPM effectors more suitable for tactical use.


Other C-UAS systems operating HPM include the MORFIUS C-UAS drone from Lockheed Martin. The company used the Altius 600 drone from Dynetics’ Area-I company, packed with Lockheed Martin’s HPM effector, MORFIUS, to engage drone swarms at range and speed. The tube-launched drone carries an HPM effector payload and a seeker, enabling it to home in on the target from a long distance. Both are recoverable and reusable. The tube-launched drone platform can be deployed from air, ground, or vehicle on the move, supporting a layered defense approach.


US Army could soon have a high-power microwave to destroy small drone swarms

The U.S. Army is set to begin development and integration of a high-power microwave capability to destroy small drone threats beginning in fiscal 2022, according to budget justification documents released with the financial request. The service plans to spend more than $50 million in FY22 to develop technology to counter small drones and is working jointly across the services to establish an enduring architecture of solutions to address the threat.


The Defense Department established the Army-led Joint Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Office, or JCO, almost two years ago, laying out a path for how it will develop a system to counter small UAS and establishing an interim group of systems to be used as a bridge to the enduring capability. Specifically, the Army is budgeting $18.73 million in FY22 to develop, integrate and test new technologies that could lead to a solution that involves high-power microwaves, or HPM,, which could contribute to neutralizing both singular drone threats and entire swarms. Already underway is an effort to integrate low-collateral effects interceptors into an enduring counter-sUAS system, but other defeat mechanisms will be developed and incorporated into the architecture.


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