With a whine like a swarm of giant angry wasps descending on a picnic, 103 micro-drones recently carried out organized maneuvers in the skies over China Lake, California. Billed by the US Department of Defense (DoD) as the world's largest micro-drone swarm, the Perdix drones were launched last October from three F/A-18 Super Hornets and autonomously carried out a series of missions that demonstrated collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying, and self-healing.
Under development by the DoD, the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) and Naval Air Systems Command, the Perdix system is named after the character in Greek mythology who was saved from certain death after his uncle Daedalus pushed him from a tower in a fit of jealous rage, only to be turned into a bird by the goddess Athena.
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The modern namesake is an autonomous micro-drone first designed by MIT engineering students and modified for military applications by the MIT Lincoln Laboratory. It's designed to be launched in small or large swarms from land, sea, or air to carry out low-altitude Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) and other missions, and is distinguished from other military drones in that it's based on smartphone technology and uses all‐commercial components, 3D‐printing, and agile manufacturing.
Each propeller-driven drone is only 6.5 in (16.5 cm) long with a wingspan of 11.8 in (30 cm) and weighs a mere 10.23 oz (290 g). At the moment, it has an air endurance of over 20 min and can reach speeds of 40 to 60 kts (46 to 69 mph, 74 to 111 km/h), can operate at temperatures of -10⁰ C (14⁰ F), and can endure the shock of being ejected from a fighter plane.
But the clever bit about the Perdix are how they are controlled. Since it isn't possible to control all 103 drones individually, they direct themselves – or rather, it directs itself after being told which of a series of tasks to perform.
"Due to the complex nature of combat, Perdix are not pre-programmed synchronized individuals, they are a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature," says SCO Director William Roper. "Because every Perdix communicates and collaborates with every other Perdix, the swarm has no leader and can gracefully adapt to drones entering or exiting the team."
Perdix is currently in its sixth generation of development, which includes improvements such as a new ejector canister and an injection‐molded fuselage. The first flight tests were carried out in September 2014 and a year later 90 Perdix test missions were flown during US Pacific Command's Northern Edge exercise in Alaska using swarms of up to 20 drones.
The DoD says that Perdix will soon move on to its seventh generation with more advanced autonomy and the SACO and the Defense Industrial Unit‐Experimental (DIUx) are seeking private companies to build 1,000 of the micro-drones this year.
Meanwhile, Roper stresses that the DoD intends Predix, like all other autonomous systems, to keep a person in the loop at all times and that the mission of the micro-drones is to all humans to make better decisions faster.