A military drone swarm

Military Drone Swarm Intelligence Explained

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Artificial Intelligence, Artificial Intelligence In Defense Industry

A critical element of modern warfare, a military drone swarm can efficiently carry out missions while minimizing the danger to military personnel. Sentient Digital develops technology situations that support the warfighter, including unmanned systems, such as drones, that play a key role in battle and beyond. Our Artificial Intelligence Research Scientist, Gene Locklear, has been leading a team to develop Ultron Emergent, a technology to facilitate the use of swarm intelligence to power drone swarms for military applications. Here Locklear explains how the technology works and how it can serve our military clients’ objectives.

Background on Drones 

Unmanned systems, often referred to as drones, are those systems that do not require the direct physical involvement of humans to operate. Humans control these systems remotely, such as by piloting a drone from a remote location, but the drones also contain artificial intelligence that allows them to essentially make decisions on their own as well. While drones have uses in civilian life as well, the military has many purposes for drones, including reconnaissance and surveillance. Drones can exceed their individual capabilities when combined in a swarm. A military drone swarm allows the drones to work in concert to achieve a goal, but each individual member of the swarm can separately determine and take whatever course of action facilitates the overall goal. 

What is Swarm Intelligence?

Swarm intelligence is the principle that a group of simple intelligences operating in concert can operate as a single, collective intelligence with superior capabilities to any of the individuals. Locklear defines swarm intelligence as the idea of a decentralized “brain” where there is no single leader or decision maker, and all the required tasks are accomplished by the overall collective behavior of the individuals. Swarm intelligence is a type of emergent property, a concept in biology in which the interactions of individual parts of a system acting together produce an overall capability that exceeds that of the individuals. Essentially, swarm intelligence is a situation in which the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Examples of swarm intelligence exist in nature, in formations of migratory birds and in swarms of insects, from which swarm intelligence derives its name.

Locklear further explains swarm intelligence is usually applied to systems where the individuals composing the system have very limited ability to perceive their environment or accomplish needed tasks alone. The behavior of bees provides a useful metaphor for understanding how military drone swarm intelligence works. The drones are like the individual bees (incidentally, also known as drones) that complete their tasks such as locating a food source or a new place to live together more efficiently as a collective whole. However, he cautions that in this case there is no “queen bee;” no individual drone outranks the others in the sense of command or decision-making ability. Instead, a bee can use what scientists term a “dance” to communicate the goodness of a location with resources to the rest of the hive, and the swarm collectively converges on that location. 

How Swarm Intelligence Works in Nature

How does the entire swarm seem to operate with one mind, but also allow for taking individual actions? Artificial intelligence researchers have used computer modeling to study the movements of swarms such as schools of fish or flocks of birds. They have determined that each member of the swarm adheres to three basic tenets: 1. Separate (stay a certain distance apart); 2. Align (move towards the destination); and 3. Cohere (try to stay together). By following these rules, the birds or fish can move together in formation, while also moving individually. For example, one bird in the swarm can move to dodge an obstacle that is only in that bird’s way, and then return to formation. The entire swarm does not have to move to make this happen and there is no leader of the swarm telling it how to move. By each individual focusing on one goal and staying within the bounds of the three rules, the collective intelligence moves toward the goal. 

SDi graphic explaining swarm intelligence principles

How can a military drone swarm use swarm intelligence in battle?

Applying the principles of swarm intelligence learned in nature to the military context means that a drone operator does not have to precisely control every movement or every drone within a swarm. Instead, the drone operator can send the swarm where it needs to be, and then the swarm intelligence primarily takes over to get the job done.

Locklear stresses that the most important aspect of swarm intelligence is the adaptability of the individuals in the system, to be assigned any required task as the need for that task increases in priority. Mission-critical operations can be performed by the drone most able to perform them at a given moment, rather than any hierarchy within the swarm dictating which drone should do so. Additionally, Locklear points out that swarm intelligence plays a major role in “military swarming” which is the military tactic of overwhelming the enemy by saturating that enemy’s defenses.

Drone warfare is shaping up to be the way the United States, as well as other countries, will wage war in the future. The United States was one of the pioneers in drone warfare, and particularly used unmanned aerial vehicles in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, in more recent years China, Turkey, and Iran have developed advanced drone programs. As an example of modern warfare using unmanned vehicles, Locklear mentions that drones have already played a significant role in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, while also noting that, until recently, Russia has not spent as much effort on drone systems but has spent much more on anti-drone systems. As modern warfare evolves, it is likely that drones and drone swarms will continue to grow in importance, with major world powers increasing their use and developing ever more sophisticated technologies.

How does Sentient Digital’s Ultron Emergent work? 

As an artificial intelligence research scientist, Locklear has been involved in developing promising simulation technologies to facilitate testing and training involving unmanned systems. He explains that Sentient Digital’s real-time simulation system, Ultron Emergent, was designed in response to the U.S. military’s experimentation with combining unmanned combat systems and human warfighters to conduct urban warfare operations. At the time of Sentient Digital’s development of Ultron Emergent, the military was spending large amounts of resources on conducting actual training operations with ground robots, airborne drones, and soldiers. These field operations were very limited in scope and expensive. Sentient Digital proposed an advanced simulation which was designed to synthetically replicate urban battles and provided in-depth analysis of the results. This would allow commanders to better capture the diverse details of the urban battlespace as well as save the U.S. Military the large number of resources being spent on in-the-field exercises. 

Ultron Emergent consists of an advanced wargaming platform that had the capability to simulate urban battles, from platoon to company size. Additionally, it has an internal capacity to record, analyze, and catalog these battles for later review. Its analytical ability allows information, gleaned from battle analysis, to be incorporated into developing the tactics that would be needed if human and robotic warfighters were fighting side by side. Much more important, Ultron Emergent can provide in-depth record keeping of the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) being employed by the unmanned systems so that any “emergent” behavior could be readily understood. In other words, it enables the tracking of swarm intelligence in a military drone swarm.

The Next Step in Military Drone Swarm Simulation: Emergent Swarm

More recently, the R&D Section of Sentient Digital has developed Emergent Swarm, which is an advancement on the idea of Ultron Emergent. Locklear describes Emergent Swarm as a cognitive architecture of intelligent agents that models manned military systems, combined with a swarm intelligence that models unmanned systems. Moving beyond just the urban battlespace, Emergent Swarm was designed to model all aspects of multi-domain operations. 

Ultimately, Emergent Swarm was devised to provide a deep exploration of the decentralized control of unmanned systems to reveal any emergent properties of human-robot warfighter integration. Once discovered, these properties could be applied to improve current tactical doctrine. Emergent Swarm, in its complete form, would be able to accomplish this with much less expense and greater diversity than actual field operations, again illustrating the value of military training simulation software as it relates to our understanding of the behavior of a military drone swarm, as well as the interactions between manned and unmanned systems, between humans intelligence and artificial intelligence.

Learn More About Military Drone Swarm Intelligence and Other Applications of Artificial Intelligence

Sentient Digital is at the forefront of artificial intelligence and takes pride in supporting warfighters to keep up with the developments in twenty-first century warfare. Military drone swarm intelligence is just one of many critical military applications of artificial intelligence where exciting new advancements take place constantly. Learn more about how Sentient Digital’s innovation enables clients to optimize their use of technology to serve their objectives.