By: Dawn M.K Zoldi
The buzz around drone swarms, multiple unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) capable of coordinating their actions to accomplish shared objectives, has created a bad image in the minds of many. “Swarm” has a negative connotation, evoking images of killer bees, hornets and other things that sting, hurt and, in some cases, kill. However, swarm tech can bring a lot of goodness to bear across humanitarian efforts, search and rescue, disaster response and other positive use cases. It just makes sense: more drones equals more sensors equals more data to inform decision-making.
One company, Spectrabotics LLC, a company whose tools aggregate, integrate and analyze drone data, is combining their analytics with drone swarm tech to solve tough problems including environmental ones like hazardous materials (HAZMAT) spills. Addressing HAZMAT incidents remains a challenge because of the complexity and dynamic forces at play during such an event. All incident commanders want the best information possible to understand how to manage the situation, especially before sending people into potentially dangerous situations. A fusion of different data points can provide full spectrum situational awareness.
Here’s how it works now: High definition drone video provides an understanding of the physical environment. Thermal imaging highlights the hot spots contributing to the problem. Spectral sensors map the extent of the spill. LiDAR contributes to an appreciation as to how the disaster could spread more widely. Individually, these drones with their sensors would require multiple operators, planning software, different expert experience, a way to share all this data for each and every drone and sensor and a lot of time-consuming analysis to integrate it to form one holistic threat picture.
Here’s how it could work with a drone swarm: All of these same drones, with different sensors on board, could synchronize, coordinate and share their data with each other while being controlled by one person or through pre-programmed autonomous features. When backed with decision science to provide analytics rapidly, the game has completely changed. According to Spectrabotics CEO Tim Haynie, “Our motto is to go from Precision to Decision. The analytics are everything. On a scale of 1-10 in severity of real-world problems, drone swarms, backed with decision science, can solve the level 10 problems.”
And the technology is already here to coordinate several drones at a time to conduct a single mission. Many flight control systems already have autonomous features and STKs that allow software developers to address swarming parameters.
However, like all tech, where there is goodness, a potential dark side lurks around the corner. Cyber components are critical to deploy drones en masse and in a coordinated manner. As such, this tool presents unique characteristics and can be used as a means and method of statecraft and even as weapons. Just last summer, off the California coast. Gary Corn (Colonel, USA Ret.), former Staff Judge Advocate of U.S. Cyber Command, Director of the Tech, Law & Security Program at American University’s Washington College of Law, a Senior Fellow at R Street Institute, and CEO of Jus Novis Consulting LLC, notes that responding to drone swarm threats, even for the Department of Defense (DOD) remains a challenge. The DOD only recently published a , and was successful in getting passed in 2019 that gives the military the domestic authority to use a range of defensive measures, up to and including force, to defend specified personnel and installations. According to Corn, “All of these capabilities and authorities are nascent and evolving. The equation is even more complex in the case of swarms where the response decision-cycle is much more compressed and the consequences of delay can be exacerbated.”
Drone swarms also can magnify cybersecurity issues in any mission due to potential hardware and software vulnerabilities. The Solar Winds hack, which exploited vulnerabilities in an IT monitoring and management platform resulted in undetected and unauthorized access to thousands of networks and systems through routine, trusted software updates. It highlights vulnerabilities inherent in supply chains that adversaries can easily access. Technologies imported from, or that contain components imported from manufacturers located or incorporated in adversary foreign states, remain a concern. According to Corn, “In the case of small drones, the vast majority of which are manufactured in China, the risks of the Chinese government having access to the devices, the controlling software, and the data flows generated by them is more than theoretical. The issue of regulating, and in some instances banning, Chinese drones has become part of a broader discussion about safe technologies. There are definite cybersecurity risks that come with these capabilities which add an extra layer of complexity to the already difficult challenge of collecting and aggregating data, even for business purposes.”
In the end, though, the beauty of drone swarm technology is that it can be a means to improve society. When combined with AI, deep learning and robotics, drone swarms will drive the innovation that can be used to solve our most difficult problems and open up markets that will elevate the drone industry.
So let’s keep the positive buzz (pun intended) going about drone swarms! #swarms4good
Dawn M.K. Zoldi (Colonel, USAF, Retired) is a licensed attorney with 28 years of combined active duty military and federal civil service to the Department of the Air Force. She is an internationally recognized expert on unmanned aircraft system law and policy, the Law-Tech Connect™ columnist for Inside Unmanned Systems magazine, a recipient of the Woman to Watch in UAS (Leadership) Award 2019, and the CEO of P3 Tech Consulting LLC. For more information, visit her website at: https://www.p3techconsulting.com