We all know about drones and we have all been impressed by the drone swarms at the Winter Olympics or at a few big event such as the launch of Wonder Woman.


In these settings, one can only be impressed by the technical feat and the beauty of the ballet of these small flying things. What we know less about is the work that is being done in order to use these swarms for military purposes. In fact, one of the few times where we might have seen this happen is in the movies, the last example being in Angel has fallen where the movie basically starts with a drone swarm attacking the president and killing almost everyone, aside of … the president and his bodyguard.

Angel has fallen (2019) – Ric Roman Waugh

The sequence is fairly striking. First of all, it underlines how difficult it is to react to such an attack. The bodyguards are firing everywhere but are not dealing a lot of damage. And in any case, for any drone destroyed, there seems to be five left to replace it, which is clearly not the case with humans. Second, the fact that all this firing power is kept into a space wagon. The ratio between the value used to transport that weapon close the battlefield and the damage that is dealt with it is staggering. Third the way the attack is depicted shows a very selective process in terms of targeting. The hero is kept alive by the drones (the vilains need him to be believed guilty of the attack).

So, in overall, a fairly amazing (scary?) vision of what the future of a drone swarm would be. In fact, such a vision has already been presented in 2017 in the Slaughterbot movie, where things go havoc when the drones start attacking civilians.

We are not experts here, but if we try to guess a bit what is plausible or not not here, there are a few interesting points to discuss :

– When the drones are fired, they directly fly to the president’s location. We could guess that this location has been shared before to the villains. Or that there is someone somewhere close to the president that is designating the target. Either way, there is still  a « human in the loop ». Regarding this part of the sequence, we are close to what seems to have happened during the attack on khmeimim and the Saudi facilities : a GPS coordinate and the launch of numerous drones.

– The swarm is pretty impressive and raises the question of knowing wether it is easy to fly so many drones together at the same time and independently. This is not a ballet that is pre-programmed and the drones just have to stick to the routine. What we know for sure here is that the US has already done such things in 2016 with a test at China Lake. Wether it means that the drones can do that in any weather, with any type of mission target etc. is of course something else

– Finally, the drones seem to « take their time » at some point in order to select their target and a analyze it. It is pretty clear when it comes to the « no go » on the hero in order to keep him alive. This part seems more dubious : if flying in swarm is already difficult, we could guess that selecting, analyzing and deciding by itself that it can attack or not is still far away. Having humans « out of the loop » in this specific part raises numerous ethical questions and would make it easy for the villains to « hack » the attack : just disguising yourself as a « friend » could be enough to mess with the AI.

Again, without being experts, what is shown in that fiction (and not science fiction, which is even scarier) seems to be pretty plausible aside of the « autonomous kill or not decision loop » and raises numerous questions. Questions that have by the way already been raised by the secretary general of the UN a few years ago : “Let’s call it as it is.  The prospect of machines with the discretion and power to take human life is morally repugnant. » 

Just as a footnote and on a lighter matter : it is also interesting to see that this vision is far from what we usually hear about when we discuss business uses of drones, i.e the archetypal one the drone delivery by amazon. In this case, the drone is often pictured alone, delivering a package. So this swarm this is at the exact opposite of the civilian version of it. With just one fun exception maybe : the (fake) amazon zepellin serving as a base for delivery drones.

Feature cover photograph: Raytheon/US Department of Defenc