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British and US militaries' drone swarm hackathon definitely isn't about army tech

It's about fighting fires, not starting them, right defence bods?

The British military has commissioned a hackathon to develop drone swarms – while claiming that it's definitely not about developing dual-use military tech.

A partnership between Britain's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) and America's Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) invites the public to "develop new and innovative ways to use unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to assist the emergency services to deal with wildfires".

"The hackathon will explore innovative ways to plan missions using multiple systems to assist in the identification and prediction of how wildfires will spread and subsequently find preventative solutions, minimise damage and save lives," said DSTL in a statement issued today.

It said those taking part would "use a range of collaboration platforms to explore different fire scenarios with an increasing level of complexity, working with experts from the Fire Service, DSTL and the wider Ministry of Defence".

Participants are expected to develop "robust and resilient autonomy" for their swarms, as well as putting together "collaborative behaviour" techniques. The competition doesn't involve any actual live flying, however, because the United States Air Force has provided a Java-based multi-UAV mission simulation suite called AMASE.

While the public emphasis of the hackathon is on search-and-rescue systems, the crossover with genuine military applications of drone tech is obvious. If you have a number of different nations using different software suites to command and control airborne drones, knowing how to easily combine those together paves the way to develop a multinational drone swarm – which could have uses for alliances such as NATO.

Did somebody say swarm squadrons?

On Monday the UK defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, made a speech in which he called for "swarm squadrons" of drones "capable of confusing the enemy and overwhelming their air defences". He also said that the first practical trials would be taking place by the end of this year. Money for the drone swarm project comes from the Defence Innovation Fund, he added.

A drone swarm with each craft carrying a bomb, kamikaze-style, could overload an enemy's defences – and even without bombs on board, the mere presence of a swarm of drones buzzing around could cause chaos at places such as airports, as hapless holidaymakers at London Gatwick airport found out the hard way in December.

Mick Hitchcock of the US Air Force said, as part of DSTL's statement on the drone competition, that the winning British team would be shipped out to the embassy in Washington DC to "present their winning ideas", as well as being sent to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International exhibition – for the American drone industry – which takes place at the end of April.

The UK drone hackathon will take place between 29-31 March at Southampton's Solent University. Potential entrants are invited to sign up through this Eventbrite page. ®

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