The Navy Plans To Launch Swarms Of Drones From Tubes [Video]

Hive-bred warfare

LOCUST In Flight

LOCUST In Flight

Screenshot by author, from YouTube

It’s an acronym even a pharaoh could fear. Developed by the Office of Naval Research, LOCUST (for “Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology”) is a drone swarm launched from tubes. In March, ONR tested the tube-launched drones, and in early April, they tested their swarming ability. In the future, American warships may launch swarms of up to 30 autonomous, swarming drones. There’s even a demonstrated planned for 2016.

The Navy's press release is quick to stress that even when flying autonomously, there will always be a human monitoring and able to take over the controls. But the real strength of the drones will be their autonomy. From the release:

“This level of autonomous swarming flight has never been done before,” said (ONR program manager Lee) Mastroianni. “UAVs that are expendable and reconfigurable will free manned aircraft and traditional weapon systems to do more, and essentially multiply combat power at decreased risk to the warfighter.” UAVs reduce hazards and free personnel to perform more complex tasks, as well as requiring fewer people to do multiple missions. Lowering costs is a major benefit of UAVs as well. Even hundreds of small autonomous UAVs cost less than a single tactical aircraft — and, officials note, having this capability will force adversaries to focus on UAV swarm response.

The tube-launched Coyote drones have folding wings and propellers, so after they leave the tube they unfold their otherwise cylindrical bodies into flying form. They are small drones, with about an hour of endurance, a top speed of over 90 mph, and a weight no greater than 13 pounds.

In a video released with the announcement, there is footage of the drones launched from tubes, followed by a swarming flight of unmanned flying wings, and then a computer-generated scene of a battle. In the battle, the drones do far more than their current Coyote incarnation is capable of, with the drones lighting up targets in a village below and either delivering missiles themselves or guiding ship-launched weapons to their destination.

Using drones, especially cheap drones, as target markers for more expensive vehicles is an area with a lot of promise for the Department of Defense. Last month, DARPA showed off a concept where drones scout for a stealth fighter and a flying missile truck, sending expendable robots forward and keeping valuable human-carrying vehicles far back. As America's adversaries acquire better anti-air weapons, LOCUST swarms may be America's the plague of choice for future wars.

Watch the LOCUST video below: