By: Dawn MK Zoldi
The buzz around swarms of drones, multiple unmanned aerial vehicle systems (UAS) able to coordinate their actions to achieve common goals, has created a bad image in the minds of many. “Swarm ”has a negative connotation that evokes images of killer bees, hornets, and other things that sting, injure, and in some cases kill. However, swarm technology can do much of the good for humanitarian efforts, search and rescue, disaster relief, and other positive use cases. It just makes sense: more drones mean more sensors mean more data to make decisions.
One company, Spectrabotics LLC, a company whose tools aggregate, integrate, and analyze drone data, combines its analytics with drone swarm technology to solve tough problems, including environmental issues like Hazardous Substance Spills (HAZMAT). Managing HAZMAT incidents remains a challenge due to the complexity and dynamic forces at work during such an event. All operations managers want the best possible information to understand how to handle the situation, especially before sending people into potentially dangerous situations. A fusion of different data points can provide comprehensive situational awareness for the spectrum.
Here‘Here’s how it works now: High definition drone video provides an understanding of the physical environment. Thermal imaging highlights the hotspots that contribute to the problem. Spectral sensors record the extent of the burial. LiDAR contributes to an assessment of how the disaster could spread. Individually, these drones with their sensors would require multiple operators, planning software, different expert experience, a way to share all this data for each individual drone and each sensor, as well as a lot of time-consuming analysis in order to integrate them into a holistic threat picture.
Here‘s how it could work with a swarm of drones: All these drones with different sensors on board could synchronize, coordinate and share their data with each other while they are controlled by one person or via preprogrammed autonomous functions. With decision science to provide analytics quickly, the game has changed radically. According to Tim Haynie, CEO of Spectrabotics, “Our motto is to go from precision to decision. Analytics is everything. On a real problem severity scale from 1 to 10, swarms of drones supported by decision science can solve level 10 problems. “
And the technology is already in place to coordinate multiple drones at the same time and carry out a single mission. Many flight control systems already have autonomous functions and STKs that software developers can use to address swarm parameters.
However, as with all technology where there is goodness, a potential dark side lurks around the corner. Cyber components are critical to the use of drones much and in a coordinated way. As such, this tool has unique properties and can be used as a means and method of statecraft and even as a weapon. Just last summer off the California coast. Gary Corn (Colonel, USA Ret.), Former Attorney at Cyber Command, Director of the Tech, Law & Security Program at the American University’s Washington College of Law, Senior Fellow at the R Street Institute, and CEO of Jus Novis Consulting LLC notes that responding to drone swarm threats remains a challenge for the Department of Defense (DOD) as well. The DOD only recently released one and was successful in getting it Adopted in 2019, giving the military national authority to use a range of defense measures, including violence, to defend certain personnel and certain facilities. According to Corn, “All of these skills and powers are emerging and developing. The equation is even more complex with swarms, where the response decision cycle is much more compressed and the consequences of delay can be exacerbated. “
Swarms of drones can also exacerbate cybersecurity issues in any mission due to potential security vulnerabilities in hardware and software. 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 reveals weaknesses in supply chains that opponents can easily access. Technologies imported by manufacturers or containing components imported by manufacturers based in or incorporated into foreign countries continue to be a cause for concern. According to Corn, “With small drones, most of which are made in China, the risk of the Chinese government having access to the devices, control software and the data flows they generate is more than theoretical. The issue of regulation, and in some cases banning, of Chinese drones has become part of a wider discussion about safe technologies. There are certain cybersecurity risks associated with these features that add complexity to the already difficult challenge of gathering and aggregating data for business purposes. “
In the end, however, the beauty of drone swarm technology is that it can be a tool for improving society. Combined with AI, deep learning, and robotics, drone swarms will drive the innovation that will help us solve our toughest problems and open up markets that will fuel the drone industry.
So leave‘s Keep up the positive buzz (pun intended) over swarms of drones! # swarms4good
Dawn MK Zoldi (Colonel, USAF, retired) is a licensed attorney with 28 years of active military and federal service in the Air Force Department. She is an internationally recognized expert on the law and politics of unmanned aircraft systems, columnist for Law-Tech Connect ™ for Inside Unmanned Systems magazine, recipient of the Woman to Watch in UAS (Leadership) Award 2019 and CEO of P3 Tech Consulting LLC. You can find more information on their website at: https://www.p3techconsulting.com