Adapted by Ukrainian fighters to drop grenades on tanks, armor, and Russian soldiers, the small drones may be more than improvised combat tools. Augmented with sophisticated AI technologies, drones adapted from commercial versions can become lethal weapons on the battlefield.
Although flying drones have been used in military applications for many years, they are usually controlled from a remote command center and are always under the direct supervision of a human operator. But that could soon change, as the US military conducts advanced tests with “swarms” of drones and robots equipped with artificial intelligence, carrying out reconnaissance missions or attacks on targets identified far behind enemy lines.
Technology has already advanced to the point where a computer could single-handedly manage operations during an armed conflict, coordinating swarms of drones from a command center. In turn, drones equipped with artificial intelligence might be able to continue their already received mission even after communications jamming. While in the movies AI inevitably ends up attacking people on both sides, the AI systems tested by the US military are somewhat more tame.
According to documentation attached to projects submitted for funding from the US budget, drone swarms could be launched from a variety of platforms, such as submarines or aircraft, and could include a variety of different payloads, from explosives to electronic jamming to troop equipment.
Although the time will probably come when drones equipped with artificial intelligence unilaterally decide to attack real targets in a war situation, for now the goal is to help the US military conduct operations where independent human control of each drone would slow down the mission. A human would still make high-level decisions, but the AI will be able to dynamically adapt to the situation on the ground.
DEALRS, a project mentioned in published documentation, attempts to solve the problems with the short range of current drones by creating a larger so-called “mothership” capable of carrying and launching swarms of drones.
The US military plans to use 3D printer technology to streamline the manufacturing of drones as quickly as possible so that they can be delivered cheaply and in any number to ongoing military operations. While some of the small drones currently used by the US military can cost more than $200,000 per unit, cutting costs will turn them into mere consumables, like conventional ammunition.
Used without concern for human casualties, drone swarms could be deployed to weaken heavily fortified targets in preparation for a larger offensive conducted with more conventional means. But in the longer term, the prospect of drone swarms replacing tanks and fighter jets is becoming increasingly likely, their advantages having been amply demonstrated on the battlefield in Ukraine.