I have an article in this months BBC Focus magazine - the world's best science and technology monthly -- about swarming robots. Previously I've looked at the potential for the deployment of large numbers of battlefield UAVs, but this goes into some detail about what flocking and swarming behavior actually mean and how they are being applied to robotics.Nature is way ahead of us here. A flock of a thousand starlings can maneuver together with ease, changing flight plans from moment to moment, and without any central control. The methods they use are remarkably subtle and effective, and researchers are borrowing these from nature to enable multiple UAVs to operate in the same airspace without the risk of collision. The pioneering first flight of a flock of Onyx guided parachutes last year was a small milestone in unmanned flight.Swarms are a level up from flocks. With swarms there is communication between individuals known as stigmergy and the result is incredibly complex, intelligent behavior. This is what iRobots Swarmbots are are about. The Swarmbots have already shown their ability to co-operatively explore and navigate, for example searching an area in the most efficient way without central co-ordination.But greater levels of integration are possible than nautre can achieve. The article includes an interview with Prof Owen Holland who is building Gridswarm:
Imagine a large group of small unmanned autonomous aerial vehicles that can fly with the agility of a flock of starlings in a city square at dusk. Imagine linking their onboard computers together across a short-range, high-bandwidth wireless network and configuring them to form an enormous distributed parallel computer. Imagine using this huge computational resource to process the sensory data gathered by the swarm, and to direct its collective actions. You have now grasped the idea of a flying gridswarm.The latest incarnation of this concept is the Ultraswarm an indoor flying cluster computer composed of miniature robot helicopters.Although the article concentrates on civilian applications, from space explorartion to firefighting and domestic cleaning, most of the really advanced work in this area is military.Swarms are extremely robust, have a high level of built-in redundancy and are well suited to complex and rapidly-changing environments. Swarming robots are a natural for the battlefield. Because the individual elements can be made small and cheap, swarms can consist of a very large number of units and the success of this approach in nature hints at how effective it is.UAV swarms are likely to arrive sooner rather than later. Check out the Killer Bee Its a flying wing with a span of less than seven feet and an airframe made of three components. Its thick wing means it can be released from aircraft at high speeds. It has eight-hour endurance with a twenty-pound payload.
A unique feature of the KillerBees geometry is that it can be stacked. Numerous planes can be stored in a small space. This, plus the ability to air-deploy the KillerBee at high speeds, means an airplane can release a single KillerBee for a close look at a dangerous target, or it can release a swarm of KillerBees to overwhelm the defenses of a target.As recounted in my book, Weapons Grade, things are likely to develop extremely quickly over the next few years, with swarming systems producing a transformation comparable to precision weapons. There are no technological barriers, just cultural ones.The new paradigm for air power is coming, and it's about to kick the door down.-- David HamblingUPDATE: Contradictory reports over whether the drone shot down by the IDF yesterday carried a warhead. Certainly Hezbollah are aware of the possibilities."You can load the Mirsad plane with a quantity of explosives ranging from 40 to 50 kilos and send it to its target," Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is quoted as saying in November 2004. "Do you want a power plant, water plant, military base? Anything!"Range of the Mirsad-1 is likely to be well over 100 Km.