Technology is transforming the battlefield in a major way and at a swift pace. One of the areas being focused upon by major powers is the utilisation of drones. The leading countries in this rather fiercely competitive area are USA and China. India has realsied the importance of drones to maintain/ enhance its operational capabilities, rather late. The author provides an insight into the use of swarms,, which have the potential being a new weapons family that could have significant value for operational commanders.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) Swarms; Need for the Indian Armed Forces
Artificial intelligence (AI) is a branch of computer science dealing with the simulation of intelligent behaviour of computers. It is the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behaviour. It is a transformative technology that has tremendous applications in the social, economic and military fields. It can revolutionise the way human beings live, work, learn, discover and communicate. Research in this field would increase our economic prosperity, improve educational opportunities, quality of life, and enhance our national security thereby upgrading our Comprehensive National Power.
Undoubtedly the smart phone of today enables calculation, communication, photography, net banking, timekeeper, organiser, music system, receiver for radio and television broad casts as also passing messages to intelligent systems. We are already using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Unmanned Petrol Pumps, Driver-less cars, unmanned sea vehicles, audio typing machines, robots undertaking industrial activities and complex issues like surgery in hospitals. Soon we would be having robots taking decisions in Command and Control Systems (C2 systems).
Group Captain R K Narang has written a comprehensive article on UAV Swarms and China’s leap in Cutting Edge Technologies. Undoubtedly, China is focusing on UAV and Swarms. China has been working on cutting edge technologies by exploiting gaps in US trade policies to ensure that they are able to innovate in the field of drones.
It is of interest to note that the Russian Ministry of Defence in January 2018 reported that its forces in Syria were attacked by a swarm of homemade drones in a coordinated attack at the Khmeimim air base at Tartus in Syria. The attack was during dusk and the Russian Air Defence had spotted 13 unidentified small size air targets at a significant distance from the military base. It was observed that 10 were approaching the airbase and three for the naval facilities. Six of the drones were intercepted by electronic warfare units. Three exploded on contact with the ground and three were made to land outside the base. The remaining seven were eliminated by the Pantsir-S anti-aircraft missiles. It is not known who launched these missiles as the same has been denied by all parties. The attack states that the age of drone swarms has arrived and it is an issue that has to be comprehended by all countries. The Indian Armed Forces have to be prepared
A UAV Swarm programme is currently in progress in the technologically leading countries of the world. The Chinese are possibly only next to the United States on this issue. Research in the United States is on since 1990 and China also started practically at the same time. In as much as the PLA is concerned the earliest information on this aspect was revealed when Tsinghua University launched a project in collaboration with PLA. This entailed developing integrated control of electromagnetic sensors dedicated to flying micro engines in 1998. A patent for the same was filed in 2011. This resulted in development followed by production. The Chinese National Electronic Corporation, a part of the China Electronic Technology Corporation became the manufacturing partner.
Having manufactured and tested the Swarms there was a need to showcase the same. This was done at the Zhuhai Air Show held on 01 November 2016. During this event the Company displayed a swarm of 67 fixed wing UAVs. This was a world record as it surpassed the US Navy’s record of UAV Swarm. This competition kept building up and in January 2017 the US demonstrated a Swarm Comprising 103 UAVs. In June 2017, the Chinese company launched 119 Catapult launched UAVs to improve its own performance and better the record set by the US.
The other area is Swarms comprising Quadcopter UAVs. Competition between the US and China has been on since 2016. The Intel Company of the United States demonstrated a swarm comprising 500 Quadcopter UAV Swarm in November 2016. The Ehang Company of China demonstrated a Swarm of 1000 Quadcopter UAVs of Ghostrider 2.0 on 11 February 2017. Intel commercialised UAV swarms and has been sponsoring various events. Swarms have substituted fireworks due to their environment friendliness. In the meantime in April of this year Ehang has set a world record by flying a Swarm of 1374 Quadcopter UAVs. The major issue is the Chinese innovative method of development of UAVs.
Development in the Indian Context
Swarms are created by a group of fixed wing or Quadcopter UAVs. US, China and number of other countries are busy developing and manufacturing swarms. While the US model is based on research leading to innovation, the Chinese have progressed from the catch up stage to innovation. Purely from an Indian perspective it would be appropriate to examine the Chinese model. The Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology under the 13th Five Year Plan in 2016 launched the Technology Innovation -2030- Major Projects programme. These projects indicate the strategic intention of China.
16 projects were initiated in this scheme including one on Artificial Intelligence known as AI-2.0.This project included exploration of big data, artificial intelligence, swarm intelligence, perception, cross media reasoning, hybrid intelligence, autonomous unmanned systems and innovative applications. This was followed by the New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan in July 2017 to implement AI 2.0 which is focused on man machine collaboration, cross media collaborative processing, self-control and autonomous intelligence systems. These capabilities are essential for development of UAV Swarms.
The exploitation started with involvement of civil military cooperation. Further the private sector was integrated with the public sector. Four public sector units were mixed with the private sector to enable innovation. The Chinese also kept a close watch as to the procedure adopted by the United States in this field. In addition China leveraged the presence of research laboratories of its major technology companies like Baidu, DJI, Huawei Technologies and Tencent Holdings to recruit talented scientists.
The PLA and its research institutes have contributed to the innovation process including swarms. The Academia too contributed in this field. Some of the agencies are listed below:-
- Right in the forefront are the Central Military Commission, Joint Staff Department and Equipment Development Department.
- The National Institute of Defence, Science and Technology inputs of the National University of Defence Technology of China.
- 60 and 61 Research Institute of the Equipment Development Department of PLA has been actively involved in strategic research, innovation and development of cutting edge technologies including UAV Swarms. The team has achieved significant breakthroughs in autonomous navigation, precision guidance and intelligent collaborative strikes.
- The academia also plays an important role in the project AI 2.0, Strategic Plan 2030. There are about 60 Universities involved in the project. The leading institutions being Fudan University and Jiaotong University of Shanghai.
China has adopted a pragmatic policy for development and manufacture of swarms. It would be prudent for India to adopt a similar system. Our DRDO has Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) which as a laboratory has already manufactured UAVs and is currently developing UAVs and Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs). By itself, despite all the talent, knowhow and infrastructure it would be difficult to develop and manufacture Swarms which is a state of the art cutting edge technology. Being a high end technology foreign collaboration would be difficult.
The solution is to innovate with the assistance from the private sector and Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME). They have to work in a public private partnership with a singular aim to develop this technology indigenously. A search undertaken on geospatialworld.net led to 30 most promising Drone startups in India. As the technology has a slew of applications and utilities there are numerous Companies available to ADE to choose and develop Swarm technology. The process would be Know Why and would result in numerous challenges which could be solved by assistance from friendly foreign countries. These countries need not part with the technology but discussing with them would lead our Aerospace Scientists and Engineers to innovative solutions. They would be helped by the Academia comprising of the India. Having analysed the development process, it would be important to know the military applications of UAV Swarms for the Indian Armed Forces.
UAV Swarms have tremendous military potential. They could loiter provide surveillance and engage targets like a missile and be also used for Post-strike Damage Assessment. Surviving UAVs could return to base.
This is explained logically in the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Offensive Swarm Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) programme by Dr Timothy Chung. The program envisions future infantry units utilising mini UAV Swarms upwards of a numerical figure of 250. The program could be employed in diverse situations including the urban environment.
The UAVs could gradually be of a bigger size and swarms could land futuristic combat robots to undertake offensive tasks. Currently, robots are being trained to read news on Chinese TV channels. Further cognitive skills of robots are in advanced stage of development for combat tasks. China is focusing on this aspect and India needs to gear up to Counter Swarms physically and by electronic means.
UAV Swarms have tremendous potential in the military domain. China is straining every sinew to gain ascendancy in this field through innovation. By 2030 Swarms would cause consternation in the Indian Battle Space. It is time that we start responding to this aspect and develop our equipment in this field.
Maj Gen P K Chakravorty (Retd)
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of BharatShakti.in)