Swarm Troopers: How small drones will conquer the world

3 minute read

I don’t typically read military books (fiction or otherwise), but I picked this one up just for the drone-bits. I’d heard a bit about the history of drones in warfare before, but it’s not until I actually found out that the predator has been around since 1994 (!) that I decided to dig in (boy was I in for a treat).

Turns out the first drone was actually commissioned in 1918! By 1943, you had first-person view (FPV) video streaming to the pilot on the ground.

However, drone adoption was ridiculously slow in the early primarily, as the author argues, because of the stigma around drones — and their perceived threat to manned planes (it’s not difficult to see that they saw it as a cute toy, but not much else … despite it proving itself in tests). It also didn’t help that drones were relatively cheap (and get cheaper with time) … whereas the bulk of their budget was dedicated to huge expensive planes (that were often over-budget by multiples). Adding a strong drone fleet would make them look bad.

They were initially used for target practice, but they performed so well that:

The military was unhappy with the results. Many felt the test was intended to make them look bad. Robert Schwanhausser of Teledyne Ryan says the results were classified Top Secret, and he was ordered to burn every piece of information on them. But the drones had made their point.

The author does a good job of describing not just drones, but also the adjacent areas of interest including batteries, solar, GPS, lasers and EMP.

He makes the case for a future where swarms of drones are used to achieve military advantage over enemies.

Overall, a good anecdotal reference for highlights of drone technology over the years, and what might happen in the near future.

Notable quotes

The Predator can also carry various electronic warfare packages that allow it to detect, locate, and intercept radio signals. The simplest of these was a radio receiver bought from Radio Shack; the most advanced are highly classified and cost millions. These could, for example, pick up walkie-talkie or cell phone transmissions and pinpoint the users. Predators can reportedly track individual cell phones when they are on by their SIM cards. Intelligence analysis may be able to identify the language or even the identity of the speaker.

Other types of tagging are passive. One approach is to shower the target with a fine dust of “quantum dots”, tiny specks of semiconducting crystal. These are invisible to the naked eye but can be detected from long range with the aid of an infrared laser illuminator. Different batches of dots can be given specific codes, so a tagged individual or vehicle can be identified days later from long range.

A transport aircraft, manned or unmanned, acts as a mothership, carrying a fleet of drones to the battle area. It then releases them to fly the last few miles under their own steam.

(To get around the battery-issues with small drones)

Birds have a huge advantage over drones. By landing on a convenient perch, they can keep an eye on the world without having to flap their wings and expend energy.

A plane that is half the size has one quarter the wing area, and hence only carries a quarter as many solar cells, but it also only has one-eighth the weight to support.

In practice, a hit on a fast-moving target at long range was unlikely. Before the war, it was estimated that the guns would score one hit for every two hundred rounds. In reality it took closer to twenty thousand.

In political terms, it is easier to carry out a hundred air strikes than have one soldier killed. This leads to costly and elaborate “force protection” measures in which the bulk of the soldier’s effort is focused on protecting themselves rather than carrying out their mission.

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