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Solar-powered swarming

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2 November 2009 08:40

The notion of 'swarming' entered the Australian military lexicon some years ago and is reflected in the Army’s 2004 landmark concept document, 'Complex warfighting' (which, by the way, has just been superseded by 'Adaptive Campaigning – Army's Future Land Operating Concept').

The idea of swarming is to mimic the collective behaviour and action of communal creatures – particularly arthropods such as bees, ants and hornets. Through swarming, a single aim or mission can be diffused and acted upon simultaneously across the community, causing it to strive towards a common purpose. 

Importantly, swarming does not mean all individuals perform identical actions. Instead, each creature somehow knows its own particular role, and performs one of a range of sub-tasks which contributes to a higher common goal.

This appeals to military tacticians because it mirrors how mission statements are now composed in ADF and similar defence forces: 'You do X in order to achieve Y'. The key point is that ultimately, the mission has succeeded so long as ‘Y’ is achieved: the execution of ‘X’ may not be essential if that sub-task has become impractical, redundant or unsupportable.

Take, for example the mission, 'Clear the enemy from Hill 101 in order to secure the adjacent bridgehead'. If, in the meantime, the enemy has left Hill 101 and occupied the nearby Hill 102, the first part of the mission may be much easier, but the second part is by no means assured!

Missions articulated like this clearly have a better likelihood of success, but only if subordinate units are adroit and flexible enough to adapt in performing their sub-tasks as situations change – hence the Australian Army's current focus on adaptiveness.

However, applying swarming tactics to military operations has been plagued by technical feasibility and conceptual limitations. How to develop multiple subordinate entities capable of comprehending a single overarching task, parsing it, and then acting autonomously — yet collectively and selflessly — on their part of the mission?

One of the biggest impediments has been that humans are actually too intelligent and individual in their approach to problem resolution to employ swarming as a tactic.

Now, advances in artificial intelligence and creativity are seeing machines composing their own, highly complex responses to their environment. Simultaneously, advances in reliability of solar technology in marine craft, and ruggedness, power and compactness of renewables in general allow for longer missions over greater distances. As noted in 'Sailing in Sunshine' in the Australian Geographic's latest issue (see solar Sydney Harbour ferry, left), the US Navy is considering applying this technology to multiple small vessels.

Likewise, the BBC and ABC recently carried reports on the progress in robotics – including towards flying bug-sized surveillance devices (see Scientific American video, above).

What this means is that for certain missions – especially ones involving high rates of repetition, predictiveness and endurance – the problematic human component in swarming can be circumvented. For the maritime and littoral environments (although it's also applicable over land) the door is wide open to field swarms of uninhabited aerial and surface (and, further out, sub-surface) vehicles without remote piloting. Such vehicles would be able to respond intelligently, collaboratively and autonomously to perform common missions such as maritime surveillance, reconnaissance, hydrography and even simple replenishment tasks.

Without the need for crew or a remote pilot relying on bandwidth-constrained situational awareness, these vehicles' sizes can be reduced enormously. Teamed with vastly improved autonomy from onboard renewable energy sources such as solar PV, the range, endurance, performance and payload can be increased accordingly, achieving very attractive economies of scale.

There's no doubt that there will remain important limitations for such swarms, especially wherever human intuition and judgment is needed. However, with 11% of the Earth’s surface to patrol, resources becoming scarcer and population movements likely to continue to increase, the use of solar-powered swarming as part of Australia's national security solution would seem a worthy one.

Photo by Flickr user Tilly Dog Fauxtografix, used under a Creative Commons license.

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