The Army Day parade in Delhi Cantonment on Friday saw 75 small to medium-size drones execute an array of Artificial Intelligence (AI)-enabled simulated offensive and combat-support operations, ranging from Kamikaze strikes to paradrop and “hover and drop” missions of essential supplies to troops on the frontlines, without any human intervention from the ground.
It marked a small beginning, and that too in a controlled environment. Use of drone swarms, which can also overwhelm an adversary’s air defence capabilities, is still a new war-fighting concept for India.
The armed forces do have over 100 large Israeli UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), from Heron and Searcher-II surveillance and precision-targeting drones to Harop “killer” ones, apart from indigenous ones.
The government has also fast-tracked `Project Cheetah’ to arm the Herons with laser-guided bombs, air-to-ground anti-tank missiles and other precision-guided munitions for Rs 3,500 crore.
But it needs to do much more. Azerbaijan, after all, emerged victorious in its war with Armenia last year primarily due to successful drone warfare. The Army is now working closely with DRDO and the private sector to induct drone swarms and other such “niche and disruptive technologies” after chartering out a concrete roadmap for them.
The rotary-wing quadcopter and multi-copter drones, weighing from 5 to 25-kg, used on Friday have been developed in a collaboration with a Bengaluru startup, NewSpace Research and Technologies, with an initial order also being placed.
“These drones can facilitate the execution of kinetic strikes with surgical precision as deep as 45-50 km inside enemy territory, without being controlled from the ground. Conversely, such a swarm of 75 drones can deliver 600-kg of supplies to our troops,” said a senior officer.
“Our tryst with AI-offensive drone operations began last August when we swarmed a mere five drones. We graduated to 20 in October, 35 in December and now 75. Such drone swarms will get larger to three digits (over 100) and possibly four (over 1,000) in the future,” he added.
The autonomy of such swarms is enabled through a complex interface between on board computers, smart and adaptive AI algorithms, advanced photometry and edge-computing for better target designation.
“It is driven by continuous satellite feeds, digital terrain scene-matching and area correlation techniques. Both pre-programmed as well as opportunity targets can be engaged by the drone swarms with equal dexterity,” said the Army.
The demonstration included “mother drones” releasing “child” ones, which then oriented and re-aligned themselves to the assigned targets. “The onboard edge computers use advanced AI algorithms to optimize the attack trajectories. Armed with explosives, the drones then fly at blistering speeds to crash into the targets in Kamikaze strikes,” said another officer.
The Army says that as its capacities in “swarming” grows in weight and sophistication, and it graduates to the fixed wing class drones, the “lethality and destructive capacities of ammunition delivery will be enhanced by a significant order of magnitude”.