One of the highlights of the Pentagon’s first-ever Department of Defense Lab Day in Washington, D.C. on May 14 was the demonstration of new micro aerial vehicles known as CICADAs. These micro-drones, which can be deployed from military aircraft at altitudes close to 50,000 feet and still fit in the palm of your hand, could represent the next big thing in the way wars are waged. Think military infestations rather than military invasions.
The CICADA (which stands for Close-In Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft) is relatively cheap, easy to make and totally disposable. Best of all, they’re as hard to destroy as the cicadas in your backyard during summer – in one test scenario in Arizona, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory released these micro-drones 57,600 feet in the air, let them free fall 11 miles in the sky, and then watched as they glided to within 15 feet of their target destination.
“They’ve flown through trees. They’ve hit asphalt runways. They have tumbled in gravel. They’ve had sand in them. They only thing that we found that killed them was desert shrubbery,” Daniel Edwards, an aerospace engineer at the Naval Research Laboratory, said at the DoD Lab Day event.
For the foreseeable future, most of the work of these CICADAs will be related to surveillance and intelligence-gathering, just as the Black Hornet mini helicopter drones were used by the British Army in Afghanistan to detect Taliban fighting units. Some of the scenarios outlined by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory include dropping CICADA drones tens of thousands of feet above enemy lines, where they can be used to eavesdrop on troop movements once they are equipped with microphones. At the very least, they might provide a clue about traffic or activity at checkpoints on roads leading into and out of difficult terrain. If you add magnetic sensors, they might even be able to pick up the movement of submarines below the water’s surface.
But here’s another thing – the official description of these CICADAs is “an unmanned glider, nearly undetectable, that delivers payloads to precise waypoints.” The word that should have sparked your attention, of course, is “payloads.” Yes, imagine dropping these CICADAs out over enemy territory, each of them armed with a small micro-payload of death. Enemy radars won’t be able to pick them up, and even if you look up into the sky, you’ll just see what appears to be a small bird or insect flying.
The fascinating part of the CICADA program is how these micro drones could eventually be used as part of a “robotic swarm” to overwhelm an adversary. An enemy may be able to defend against several of these drones, but just try to defend against a giant swarm of them launched out of the back of a plane. A separate but related U.S. Navy experiment carried out as part of the SWARM program at the Office of Naval Research (ONR) showcased the potential effectiveness of the new LOCUST (Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology) program. Imagine 30 micro aerial vehicles launched all at once to carry out strikes on enemy territory.
And, in fact, there’s a growing literature about so-called “robotic swarms” — which are essentially drones or bots that can be programmed to behave intelligently during combat. And best of all, these bots and drones can form “swarms” without the need for humans to control them. In another related experiment, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory showed how a group of 13 “swarm boats” — all of them without requiring a human drone operator — could be used to protect a high-value naval vessel.
And it doesn’t stop there. Imagine giant “aircraft carriers in the sky,” capable of launching whole fleets of mini-drones at one time. Or, better yet, how about underwater aircraft carriers? As Peter W. Singer, an expert on drones and warfare, pointed out about recent DARPA initiatives, “If you are looking at other places where you might see aircraft carriers, don’t look up in the air, look under the water.”
Yes, that’s right — underwater aircraft carriers for drones. In yet another experiment, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory showed that it was possible to release a drone from a submerged submarine with the robotic drone shot out of a Tomahawk missile tube. As the drone emerges from the tube, its wings unfold before it speeds off to its destination.
What makes micro aerial vehicles such as the CICADA so attractive, of course, is that they’re cheap to make and simple to operate. By the estimates of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, a single prototype for a CICADA can be produced for less than $1,000. And as more uses are found for these micro-drones, it’s easy to see the price falling further. One scenario being bandied about is using these CICADAS to monitor extreme weather situations, such as tornadoes. Within a few years, as more applications are discovered, that price might drop to as low as $250.
In terms of simplicity, they’re basically a “piece of cardboard with a circuit board.” They’re not sophisticated drones that you have to learn how to pilot. You just load them up in a plane, fly really high, and drop them out the back end of a plane. That’s huge, if you take into account the latest report from the GAO, which suggests that there just aren’t enough drone pilots out there to keep up with the military’s use of drones.
Cheap, simple, disposable and without the need for a human operator — it’s no wonder, then, that the military is so interested in the potential applications of these micro CICADA drones.
Remember when the future of warfare was bigger — bigger missile payloads, bigger tanks and bigger warplanes? In an era of asymmetric warfare, tiny innovations such as the CICADA are what might be needed to take the fight to the enemy in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Imagine if the U.S. military had been able to drop off hundreds of these CICADAs over mountainous areas of Afghanistan or Pakistan in the search for Osama bin Laden. Forget “boots on the ground,” “insect wings in the sky” might be a better metaphor. If giant swarms of insect-like drones can save the lives of U.S. soldiers abroad, then let the CICADA infestation begin.