UK flies 20-drone swarm in major test

The UK has flown a swarm of 20 drones of five different types, the largest evaluation of a military-focused Uncrewed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) swarm in the UK to date. The test represents the culmination of work done by the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory’s (Dstl) ‘Many drones make light work’ project.

Funded under the Ministry of Defence’s (MOD) Science and Technology Portfolio through the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA), the evaluation saw 220 sorties flown over two weeks from RAF Spadeadam, Cumbria.

The Dstl project technical authority said: “Dstl has been driving research in autonomous systems across different platforms and domains for many years.

“This is a significant step forward in our understanding of the capabilities of swarming drones and has been achieved through excellent collaboration across the MOD and with a number of Small and Medium Enterprise partners.”

Following two earlier phases, a £2.5m contract was awarded to further develop the technology in 2019. Funding was awarded to a team led by Blue Bear Systems Research that includes Plextek DTS, IQHQ, Airbus and Durham University.

The swarm saw five different fixed-wing drones carrying six different payloads fly representative missions under the control of just three operators using Blue Bear’s Mobile Command & Control System (MCCS).

The five UAVs used in the test were Blue Bear’s Ghost, Ghost Modular, Red Kite, Cobra and the hand-launched Flat Pack system.

Blue Bear managing director Ian Williams-Wynn said: “Demonstrating BVLOS operations of a 20-drone swarm shows how far we have come in the 18 months this project has been running.

“I am so proud of the whole team who have put a phenomenal amount of effort in to deliver the UK’s most complex autonomous air vehicle trial ever.”

To reduce operator burden, a number of the UAVs were running Blue Bear’s Artificial Intelligence platform (BBAI) which processed sensor data on the aircraft before transmitting relevant information to ground controllers.

The Dstl project technical authority added: “This 18-month collaboration has resulted in the demonstration of an operationally relevant capability and will inform and de-risk future choices and decisions about swarming drone capability.”

During the evaluation, the drone swarm also utilised Blue Bear’s Airspace Deconfliction Layer (ADL) technology to assist in the automatic deconfliction of BVLOS and track third party aircraft operating in the same area as the swarm.

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