The evaluation of the technological and conceptual capacity of a solution based on the use mini-drones in swarm to bring crucial support to the forces in order to efficiently intervene into more and more dense urban areas, in a partitionned environnement, still inhabited by some of its population and particularly inconvenient both for aerologic and communication goals.
This solution must meet 3 majors challenges : comprehend the tactical situation, communicate with and coordonate the different actors. It needs to perform efficiently in urban environnment, be sturdy, costly controlled and integrable with in-system services.
Drone systems are nowadays fully exploited in observation and intelligence fields. They quickly evolve et the idea of coodinating their efforts in order to optimise their use and increase their efficency led to several scientific and technological studies.
In that field, mini-drones, launched in a civil and growing-due to a proper law-enforcement market, already are in use for at least 10 years by land forces to assure a tactival vision added to the straight vision.
Because of its flexibility and its low cost, the mini-drone field is a privileged tool of innovation and research, and it offers new technological perspectives such as the coordinated flight of a groupe of mini-drones : this function, which’s goal is to handle a drone-fleet using the intelligence methods distribued for the benefits of a common purpose or a group of purposes, is called Swarming/ Swarm flight. The goal is to use simple and low-cost drones, with a very limited individual interest, that form together a complex and tough system, for example with capacity of self-assembling or self-organization. Those opportunities which are extremely interesting for tactical military uses are explored in USA by the Navy Research Lab (LOCUST and CICADA) and Air Force Lab. Other countries explored some concepts in order to produce « transformers » drone.
If the MoD has a large experience in the tactical mini-drones field, it doesn’t have much in term of drone swarming flight. Several research maboratories and SME worked ont the DGA’s contract about potential technical solutions : REI SUSIE gave excellents results on the human-system interface part. The Mo Dis looking for answers about the in-use or in-prep technologies capacity to provide forces today a viable solution. In the drone field, the Aquitaine’s area is particularly active and is currently exploring this concept, which’s particularly promising towards the drone-systems productivity on missions covering large areas with a complete set of manufacturers.
In the framework of a prospective, capable and conceptual measure, the initial study has to identify the feasibility of an observation and communication solution based on mini-drones in swarm, allow to evaluate its operationnel interest, determine the doable concepts associated to such systems and specify the scientific and industrial fabric that would enable it to be realized and supported.
The study is based on an idea of a solution that needs to be better defined in order to evaluate it in relation to the various operational, technological, economic and industrial aspects.
The study will allow the MoD to statue on the following elements :
- Is the solution technically viable and doable ?
- Does it really respond to the expectations of forces ?
- What are the issues, limitations and costs of such capabilities ?
- Which countries have launched demonstration projects or programs that go along this path and what are the employment concepts ?
- Which French and European industrial players have embarked on this path, in particular innovative SMEs / SMEs ?
- Which ecosystems could eventually promote the emergence of rapidly expanding operational solutions ?
- What action of the State and the regions could accompany their development ?
- What other framework than urban combat could be considered ?
To these questions must necessarily be added the legal question of the use of such means and the associated potential constraints. The question of the interoperability of such a system with command systems of the security forces, allies or NATO must also be looked at.
It is necessary to determine the viability but also to estimate the most likely feasibility schedule, taking into account both the conceptual maturity and the technological maturity. It is therefore necessary to start with a preliminary draft plan based on a draft concept and scenarios, and finally to propose a roadmap to advance beyond the results provided by the study.
In particular, it is necessary to refine the operational concept and its need and propose a roadmap for:
- technical and operational studies and more targeted experiments (definition of man-system interfaces and organizations to be set up) to refine the need and the concept,
- the launching of technological action programs, in particular operational demonstration programs to resolve the hard points identified at this stage,
- definition of a target system architecture,
- the structuring of a technological and industrial base around this concept.
For several decades, the drone has been an indispensable tool in the intelligence arena. Its use at the tactical level has become widespread since Afghanistan, allowing for near-total surveillance at any level of the battlefield. It begins to gradually enter the field of action through armed drones and will probably propose rapid transport functions once these functions have been implemented in the civilian.
Employed at the lowest level of the tactical units, mini-drones allowed these units to better grasp the terrain, monitor it in depth and better protect themselves. These mini-drones are mostly based on direct line communication solutions.
The United States and Israel have developed a wide range of possibilities for using tactical drones in their forces, including mini-drones. Easy to use for research, these instruments quickly benefit from the results of this research allowing a rapid introduction of technology within the forces. This same ease of access is noted in the developments of certain countries like China and other countries now follow this strong trend. It is also likely in view of its use by Hezbollah and the recent episodes in France on the use of malicious drone, that it becomes a tool of asymmetric opponents.
France has equipped itself with the DRAC drone and a tender for the successor program called SMDR (Mini-Drone Reconnaissance System) was launched in the summer of 2015. Its more open legislation than elsewhere in Europe has allowed To launch a mini-drone industry that now offers a wide range of applications including in urban areas. Research is strongly supported by a very rich pool of startups and SMEs that address these different markets and make them grow.
If the drone allows to narrow down the risks by avoiding the exposion of a human crew, it still is in a logic of a ground control station : even if missions’ fraction can be robotized, the constraint in terms of supervisory staff remains high as the area to be monitored is important, effectively limiting the use of mini-drones despite an undeniable cost advantage. The optimization of the use of these drones also requires a dedicated organization.
In urban combat, the use of mini-drones remains today strongly constrained by the specific aerological conditions of this type of zone as well as by the difficulties in having reliable positions or communications. The strong compartmentalization of the terrain, the different masks also force a greater number of drones for the same surface to use, thus furnishing an important human resource for piloting and serving them once on the ground.
Under these conditions, the idea of introducing an ability to manage fleets of drones for the benefit of one or several missions by equipping the drones with sufficient autonomy to minimize the piloting of the human actor and to enslave this piloting to high-level orders is a promising area of reflection.
Many have already taken an interest in swarm flight, but regulations do not allow for the availability of certified products in this range of products and applications take a long time to reach the market. The complexity of the problems to be addressed in particular in the field of communication also requires a gradual maturation of the function in order to satisfactorily deal with the needs of users whether civil or military.