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US Army warns of the potential dangers of swarming toy drones on US soldiers

A swarm is an fleet of 40 drones or more, apparently

US warplanners are going to have to deal with an increasing drone threat, both from off-the-shelf hardware today to possibly more intelligent dangers.

The increasing power and sophistication of "hobby drones" is making them attractive to insurgents, according to a report drafted by the US National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, for the US Army. In the future swarming technologies for such drones could arrive much sooner for warfare and will pose a dangerous threat to infantry units.

“Hobby drones are easy to buy, their performance is improving dramatically, and their cost has dropped significantly; now with millions of them around the world, they pose a growing threat to the U.S. warfighting forces if used for nefarious intents,” said Albert Sciarretta, chair of the committee, a retired Lieutenant Colonel, and president of CNS Technologies, an independent consultancy company based in Virginia

“The threats could be consumer items like hobby drones, modified consumer items such as could be assembled with online components, and customized ones, like built-from-scratch aircraft."

The full report is classified, but the committee did publish an unclassified public version which contains scant information on the findings and recommendations.

It did warn, however that the capabilities of these small, toy drones are improving rapidly. They can be used to carry weapons, and utilise computer vision software to pick out targets from long distances, and even disturb enemy radio frequencies.

“Modified hobby drones can be used to support conventional and unconventional attacks. For example, they can be fitted with external or embedded explosives designed to explode on contact. In addition, they can be used by adversaries to jam our radio frequency signals and to support their information operations. When these sUASs are combined in groups or swarms, their threat is significantly enhanced," Sciarretta said.

The report defined these small unmanned aircraft systems (sUASs) as collaborative groups if there were less than 40 units, but a swarm contained 40 or more. Sciaretta told The Register that that number was chosen because at that point “you no longer see the trees, you see the forest”.

These collaborative groups and swarms can operate at varying levels of autonomy. Both can “perform sophisticated tasks as part of a team through data sharing, communications, and synchronization of actions, and even dynamically reassigning missions to take advantage of the capabilities and physical location of team members and abide by established rules of engagement.”

In order to counteract these systems, any group or swarming behaviour has to be detected first in order to identify the potential threats they carry. But since they’re small and can fly erratically at low altitudes, it’ll be a difficult task as they can blend into their environment more easily, hiding behind trees or amongst a flock of birds.

The US Army and DoD have been trying to pinpoint current sUAVs by tracking the radio frequencies they transmit. But consumer drones are increasingly being commanded without using radio, the report said. Instead, software is being used to automate the ability of recognizing targets to track and avoiding obstacles during flight without the need for radio signals.

Sciarretta did not answer questions about how developed current swarming capabilities are, how far away they were from being used in warfare, and what areas of technology could be used to detect them. That sort of information was classified, he said.

Machine learning and AI is an obvious area. Several experiments already show how neural networks can be used to automate flight paths for single drones. A recent AI report examining how the technology could be used maliciously also identified swarming as an area where AI software could be turned into a physical threat. ®

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