SWARM TROOPERS

Author Rating:
4/5,
  • Author:
    David Hambling
    Drones have become and integral part of warfare in much the same way as a mobile phone has become a fundamental platform of modern life. Both technologies emerged in the late 1980s, and both have advanced astonishingly quickly. The reason for the rapid development of mobile phones is simple; money. The smartphone industry spent US$150 billion on R&D in 2014. The Pentagon spent US$60 billion on all its research programmes combined. This is possible because of the economies of scale and the exploitation of free market economics.

    The same civilian technology firms are now turning their eyes to making better drones. For $25 you can buy self-stabilising multi rotor craft with a camera. For $7,000 you can buy a similar machine, but with a broadcast quality camera and better aerodynamic performance. This compares to the MQ-9 Reaper, which costs about US$18 million or the F22 Raptor which comes in at US$200 million or so (depending on who is doing the counting). Drones are now very cheap.

    In this book the author, who is a technology journalist, investigates what is necessary to make small cheap drones more able to perform militarily useful missions. Not much, it turns out. There are already drones that can perch, drones that can recharge via solar energy or power cables and drones that can fly at higher speeds (50 knots or more). While there are trade-offs between payload and capability these are not insurmountable.

    Moreover, if drones are cheap then a swarm of drones could cooperate to provide multiple capabilities. It’s happening already, and developing the artificial intelligence necessary for drones to cooperate with each other, or “swarm”, is also underway and not as complex as one might think. There are many potential advantages; currently a Reaper engages targets with Hellfire missiles at a cost of $110,000 and with 10 kg of explosive. Against a single man or soft vehicle that is significant overkill (spelt collateral damage). David Hambling postulates a drone that could deliver 100-gram hand grenade sized warhead at a cost of under $5,000 having first identified the target (face recognition software) and received human authorisation. The necessary technology exists or is in development.

    The book is an engaging read and well referenced. It is at its best when explaining technologies work and parts of it are fascinating. This is not a surprise; Mr Hambling writes for the Economist. Unfortunately, like many technology journalists, he knows little about soldiering. He can’t resist cheap shots at the inevitability of cost overruns and seems unaware that many tanks are armoured on top as well as to the front. He has little understanding of the mechanics of warfare and dismisses those problems that he does not understand.

    That said, the technologies exist and the book describes them and their potential well. Anyone with an interest in the future of warfare should read it, and just grit their teeth through the irritating bits and the too frequent typos.

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  1. Mothman
    What3words app has divided up the entire planet into 67 billion 3x3 metre squares and given them a 3 word unique code. Eg house.blue.share

    The implications for reliably programming and navigating drones are immense. Amazon are interested in utilising it for parcel delivery drones.
  2. Mothman
    BAe will deliver a £25 drone for £7000 each. That's my prediction!

    I am reminded of the Culture and it's knife missiles used for assassination.
  3. SwarmTrooper
    Glad you liked the Swarm Troopers -- you will be pleased to hear that the irritating typos have been removed in the current edition.

    The point is made in the book that while tanks do have armour on top, it is very much thinner than the frontal armour. Most man-portable weapons have little chance against MBT front armour, but top attack - easy for a man-portable drone - is an option.
    1. View previous replies...
    2. Cynical
      Moreover, the challenges of producing either an accurate HEAT jet or a substantial explosively formed projectile lead into a whole bunch of technical challenges which explains in part the expense of modern anti tank weaponry (and of course this is not a mass market application so the costs will not come down as they have for imaging software etc.)
      Cynical, Apr 5, 2016
    3. SwarmTrooper
      An RPG-7 has a very good HEAT warhead and is yours for $200, they don't have to be expensive. A small EFP capable of going through top armour can be made in a garage with basic tools (as shown in Afghanistan) - it's just a lump of explosive with a suitably-shaped metal lens. Additive manufacturing, aka 3D printing, means these can now be churned out very cheaply, and of course they're immune to reactive armour.
      SwarmTrooper, Apr 6, 2016
    4. Cynical
      Fair point on EFP but there is still the problem of aiming them.
      And they're not that light.
      Cynical, Apr 6, 2016