A demonstration to show whether autonomous, swarming small unmanned aircraft can overwhelm an adversary more cost-effectively than conventional weapon systems is planned for fiscal 2016 by the Office of Naval Research (ONR).

Under the Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology (Locust) program, ONR plans to launch 30 Raytheon Coyotes from a ship off the coast of Florida, with the expendable UAVs rapidly forming a swarm and autonomously conducting a mission.

Coyote is a tube-launched electrically powered small UAV originally developed for ONR by Advanced Ceramics Research, which was first acquired by BAE Systems then sold to Sensintel, which was acquired by Raytheon in January.

ONR conducted several Coyote launches in March, and also demonstrated autonomous synchronization and formation flight with nine UAVs. The swarming demo is planned from ONR’s Sea Fighter technology-demonstration ship, offshore from Eglin AFB in Florida, says Lee Mastroianni, Locust program manager.

After rapid launch the Coyotes will establish communication between themselves using a low-power radio-frequency network, sharing position and other information. They will form a “parent/child” relationship, with one of the UAVs acting as the lead and the others following, he says.

“They know where they are, and tell everyone else where they are. That is part of the communications,” says Mastroianni. The UAV acting as parent may change depending on maneuvers, and the demo will look at how tightly they can formate, at what altitude and through what maneuvers, he says.

ONR’s goal is for the swarm to be autonomous. “I want to hit launch and not talk to them,” Mastroianni says. Commands can be sent to break the swarm into different packages, or to send individual UAVs off to perform other missions such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

The UAVs are intended to be expendable, to avoid the cost of recovering them after a mission. “We need to make them cheap and disposable to make them attractive to use,” he says. ONR’s goal is a unit cost under $10,000. “It would be nice to get to $5,000-7,000.”

For the at-sea demo in 2016, the UAVs will be recovered to avoid any harm to sea life, but that may involve flying them into a target on land, says Mastroianni.

Demonstrating rapid launch of 30 UAVs in 30 sec. or less, and subsequent fast formation of the swarm is a key enabler for the use of low-cost battery-powered vehicles. “Rapid launch is driven by endurance, which for small UAVs is not long,” he says.

Although the technology behind Locust is intended to be platform-, payload- and mission-agonistic, says Mastroianni, the need for useful endurance drives the size of the UAV and the choice for the demo of the 12-14-lb. Coyote, which can fly for 90 min.

The Locust demo “is a big first step in autonomy, and helping people get comfortable with the autonomy,” he says. Last August, in a demo on the James River in Virginia, ONR showed that swarming small unmanned surface vessels could overwhelm a hostile ship.

The technology involves a transportable kit that can be installed on almost any boat. Locust is part of an effort to develop autonomy technologies that can be applied across surface, undersea and air domains, says Rear Adm. Mat Winter, chief of naval research.  

This article was originally published on April 20.