Micro-drones are now smarter than ever. While older drones were pre-programmed with individual missions, the new 6th generation Perdix drones operate in intelligent swarms.
A recently released video shows a Perdix drop from last October. The Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO), working with Naval Systems Air Command and MIT’s Lincoln Lab, released a swarm of 103 of the bird-sized devices from 3 Super Hornets in China Lake, CA. The drones fly in loose formation. They continually reorganize as a group whenever one becomes separated.
The name Perdix refers to the nephew of Daedalus in Greek mythology. The talented youth was credited with inventing the saw and creating his own compass from scratch. The jealous uncle, in fear of an all-too-capable rival, led Perdix to the top of a high tower and pushed him off. Minerva, who was partial to inventors, saved him by turning him into a partridge – or “Perdix” in Greek. Like the youth, the Perdix drones are dropped and learn to fly.
Unlike earlier models, they are capable of collective decision making, adaptive formation flying, and self-healing, according to an SCO report.
Each measures at about a one-foot wingspan, weighs a little more than a can of Coca Cola, and has an endurance time of about 20 minutes
You won’t yet find a swarm of Perdix in combat. However, they’re well suited to low-altitude intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions (ISR). The drones can be launched from air, sea, or ground.
The technology has developed quietly over the past several years in MIT’s Lincoln lab. Lincoln Labs named Perdix as one of 2 Unmanned Vehicle research projects in 2013. The famous lab dates back to 1959, when it was created to develop USA’s first air-defense system. New long-range enemy bombers had appeared on the scene, posing a new threat to US. In response, the DOD called on MIT to help the nation defend its borders, and the project began.
We’ve already seen a variety of micro-drones in military use
All have been individually controlled:
- AeroVironment’s hand-launched Switchblade carries out both surveillance and combat missions … it carries a high-precision direct fire tactical missile system
- China’s CH-901 is capable of both attack and surveillance
- Both British and US military have deployed the Black Hornet from the Norwegian Prox Dynamics … although the device could easily be mistaken at a distance for a toy helicopter, it holds three cameras and is capable of video, still, and close up shots
- In 2015, it was reported that the US Military had created its own Hornet-sized microdrones called Cicadas. The tiny gliders drop out the sky and appear swarm-like as they sail through the air sans motor
The Perdix, however, adapts
It has the ability to change course and self-heal formations. All drones in the swarm share a collective intelligence. There is no leader. They can intelligently adapt to changes in numbers, their fellow drones, and the environment.
Formerly, enemy air defense could take out a single drone and destroy part of a mission. It will now be much more difficult for enemies to interfere because the entire group shares one adaptable mind.
While each Hornet cost $40,000 USD each when they first came out, the Cicada prototype had a price tag of only $1,000. The Perdix is designed to be much cheaper and more plentiful. In fact, Lincoln Labs lists the 2013 Perdix research project as specifically for the purpose of creating a “low cost micro-UAV.”
3D printing has now simplified the manufacturing process. The SCO hopes to produce them in large batches of 1,000 according to a press release from Defense.Gov.
Programming groups of drones isn’t new. In 2012 MIT had 16 nano quadrotors fly many different formations indoor including perfect figure 8 with no collisions. The Perdix are next gen because of their swarm like learning behavior.