LOCUST displays potential for multifunctional UAV swarms

The US Navy is demonstrating a development version of a system to launch an autonomous swarm of drones for a variety of missions.

A system to launch and co-ordinate a swarm of small, cheap drones is being demonstrated by the US Office of Naval Research (ONR). Dubbed LOCUST (Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology), the system is ship-based and can launch several UAVs in rapid succsession which then act together to overwhelm a target.

The Coyote UAV is compatible with the LOCUST launcher

The system is aimed at reducing the cost of UAV missions, as even hundreds of the LOCUST UAVs cost less than a single large tactical aircraft, the ONR claims.

LOCUST uses a launcher consisting of a series of tubes, each holding a single UAV in a folded configuration. Once launched, the wings unfold, and the single drone can communicate with other UAVs launched from adjacent tubes, ‘enabling autonomous collaborative behaviour in either defensive or offensive missions,’ ONR states.

The launcher is compatible with 1m-long Coyote UAVs, developed a Advanced Ceramics Researchg, a company acquired by BAE Systems in 2009; these aircaft are are electrically propelled and can carry a variety of different payloads. The ONR team has also launched nine UAVs together and demonstrated autonomous synchronisation and formation flight.

“This level of autonomous swarming flight has never been done before,” said programme manager Lee Mastroianni. “UAVs that are expendable and reconfigurable will free manned aircraft and traditional weapon systems to do more.”

The launcher system is small enough to be deployed from a variety of platforms, including ships, tactical land vehicle, aircraft or unmanned systems. LOCUST is intended to be used with a human monitoring the drone mission and capable of taking over control from the autonomous systems if necessary.

Further development will continue, with a demonstration of a rapid launch of a 30-strong swarm from a ship scheduled for next year, Mastroianni said.