Mind of the swarm

Amazing new technology allows drones to flock together as they fly

Dozens of small unmanned aircraft systems fly together, filling the sky. Some are collecting information. Some are identifying ground targets. Others might attack the same targets.

They fly together like a flock of birds, tracking their positions and maintaining their relative positions in the air. Human operators are not needed for every flying drone; instead, they direct the flock as one.

New software is allowing UAS platforms to work together in formations that can overwhelm adversaries and are capable of flying into areas that are too dangerous for men and women in uniform. Under a contract from DARPA, the Pentagon's advanced research agency, Raytheon Technologies is developing tools to autonomously control swarms of ground- and air-based drones. Using speech and gestures, operators will be able to direct swarming tactics among multiple – and different – drones from a tablet or other device.

Raytheon Technologies’ small, tube-launched Coyote® UAS has its own special software that enables several of them to fly as a swarm. The company demonstrated this ability for the Office of Naval Research in a Low-Cost UAV Swarm Technology, or LOCUST.

“I would say they performed flawlessly,” said Pete Mangelsdorf, a director for Raytheon Missiles & Defense, a business of Raytheon Technologies. “It's a breakthrough technology that uses information sharing between UAVs, which enables autonomous, collaborative behavior.”

The technology is designed to expand the reach of human operators, and there are always human operators making the key decisions. The operators are connected to or on the loop of the Coyote swarm to make course corrections and other changes if needed. 

The need to net Coyotes together is becoming more urgent, as the use of drones evolves.

“It's almost impossible to defend against (swarms of UAVs),” Mangelsdorf said.

Coyote, matched with KuRFS, Raytheon Technologies' small, precision radar, is also an effective counter-drone technology. Under an urgent operational need, the U.S. Army is now procuring Coyote as a near-term solution to eliminate enemy unmanned aircraft.

The next generation of Coyotes will fly farther and faster, and they will have greater endurance. They will carry different kinds of payloads, depending on the mission. They will also be able to fly around for a stretch of time, circle an area and perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

“It’s a loitering munition,” Mangelsdorf said.

While it will resemble a missile, the new Coyote will be much more flexible, with the ability to turn around and come back, fly in a different location or detonate itself if a mission is aborted. Raytheon Technologies will build prototypes for the U.S. Navy’s LOCUST program under a 2018 contract, further advancing Coyote’s swarming powers.

In addition to the Office of Naval Research, the company is providing Coyote to the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Air Force Research Lab. If the U.S. government approves, it could someday offer Coyote to allied nations.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also used Coyote to track and model Hurricane Maria in 2017. The small drone can fly into storms that are too threatening for conventional aircraft.

Raytheon Technologies is responding to the growing demand by expanding its UAS factory to build more of the versatile Coyote.