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Stop us if you've heard this one before: Seamen spread over California

Swarm. Huh. What is it good for? A cluster of robo-Top-Guns over China Lake

Video In October, three F/A-18 Super Hornet jets dropped an unusual payload into the air over the US Navy's China Lake weapons testing facility in California – more than 100 semi-autonomous drones.

The Perdix drones, 6- by 12-inch propeller-powered unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), were fired out of the flare dispensers of the aircraft and then self-organized into a swarm. Ground controllers directed them to search a nearby road and the 103 drones headed over and sorted out the best way to do the job themselves.

"Due to the complex nature of combat, Perdix are not pre-programmed synchronized individuals – they are a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature," said William Roper, director of the Department of Defense's (DoD's) Strategic Capabilities Office, on Monday this week.

"Because every Perdix communicates and collaborates with every other Perdix, the swarm has no leader and can gracefully adapt to drones entering or exiting the team."

The Perdix drones, named after a character in Greek mythology who invented the saw and the compass, communicate wirelessly and use specially developed algorithms to avoid collisions and organize their flight in conjunction to complete an assigned task.

The drones have a battery life of around 20 minutes and a top speed of 60mph, and are designed to be dropped and then discarded after fulfilling their purpose. They are built from commercial and 3D-printed parts to keep costs low, and the military is looking to set up production lines to churn out 1,000 at a time.

"I congratulate the Strategic Capabilities Office for this successful demonstration," said Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, who created SCO in 2012. "This is the kind of cutting-edge innovation that will keep us a step ahead of our adversaries. This demonstration will advance our development of autonomous systems."

That said, there's unlikely to be a battlefield deployment of the Perdix drones. The UAVs are a testbed for the swarming software, but the DoD wants to build much smaller micro-drones that can be deployed in greater numbers and possibly carry offensive capabilities. ®

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