3D Printing Drone Swarms, Part 9: Standing Post


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As we discuss in our ongoing 3D Printing Drone Swarms series, additive manufacturing (AM) will play an increasing role in the production of all manner of semi-sentient robots. This has been demonstrated by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are now being made in part with 3D printing for lightweight, custom designs. For this reason, we expect AM to be used for other drone-style bots as well, often for military purposes. 

Guard duty is an essential but boring part of military life. Well… boring until that one time when people come over the wire. Machines excel at the boring and we love using them for dangerous tasks. Machine vision and computers are generally good at spotting patterns and interruptions in patterns, as well. And that bored-out-of-their-mind sentry is rightfully bored up, until that single second when their 3 AM cigarette guides a sniper’s round. Therefore, having a robot or a system of machines do your guard duty looks like a very practical thing to do.

Cameras & Sensors

This is already happening to an extent. Security cameras coupled with sensors and algorithms trained to listen for footsteps or locate incoming rounds are being used already. Elaborate sensor networks ring borders and bases worldwide.

If we contemplate a vision featuring robots guards, we should remember that these don’t necessarily have to be C3PO-style droids, though a humanoid or dog bot is bound to get all of the press. However, other collections of automated systems working in concert can be much more effective and inexpensive. Multiple blankets of sensors coupled with a computing solution to separate the wheat from the chaff is, therefore, going to be the main solution for years to come. We are now seeing automated sentry and force protection solutions being deployed that are making a huge difference.

Armed Sentries

An example of an armed sentry system is Korea’s Super Super aEgis II, an automated potentially autonomous system which marries a .50 gun with a 4KM range to a sensor package. Every time these kinds of units are discussed, people refer to ethical issues of letting robots kill. As we’ve noted previously just adding a human in a loop by pressing an OK switch when one of these 100 alerts will do much to assuage these fears. At the same time it will be interesting to see if remote and autonomous weapons systems get pushback from the public and become unusable or problematic ethically, as mines and cluster munitions have. Will these systems be seen as being as indiscriminate? The reality is, however, that many systems already select and automatically eliminate targets human or not. But because these are described as defense against missiles, there is less discussion about them.


Image by Raytheon.

Another development in automation could be associated with counter rocket, artillery, and mortar (C-RAM) equipment. The USS Cole is a guided missile destroyer which can launch Tomahawk cruise missiles, and much else besides. It’s a very sophisticated vessel and outclasses entire navies. In 2000, a simple speedboat with two suicide bombers aboard cost the lives of 37 US sailors on board the Cole off the coast of Yemen. An apex predator had become prey. A very sophisticated Christmas tree of sensors had been defeated by a decidedly low-tech, low-cost adversary carrying a shape charge with 200 kilos of C4.

Part of the issue with the Cole bombing was that the Navy’s rules of engagement forbade sailors to fire on another vessel without having been fired upon or getting approval from the commanding officer. In the case of a fast-approaching, small vessel, approval could not come fast enough. Furthermore, the boat did not shoot first. It just did nothing until it exploded. This issue was solved with changes to the rules of engagement, increased training for such a scenario, and, one would hope, some truly fundamental thinking about threats to surface ships.

Vulcan cannon, a rare example of something that is in museums and inventory. Image National Museum of the United States Air Force.

Asymmetric threats, including those yet unimagined, put a renewed focus on investments in protective solutions. One of these revolves around one of the oldest weapons systems still used by the U.S. military, the Vulcan cannon, which in some way or other has been in service since 1959. GE’s gift to the world is a 6,000-round-a-minute, multi-barreled weapon that has been on U.S. aircraft since the F-105 Thunderchief, the F-4, F-15, F-16 and as the rear gun of a B-52. Variants have been used on the Thunderbolt, and even the sixth gen Raptor 22. The cannon has also been used on helicopters and ground vehicles. The Phalanx CIWS is an automated turret based on the Vulcan that has been in service since the 1980s.

It’s a last line of defense against incoming missiles or craft. In a bizarre and largely unexplained incident in 1987, a U.S. guided missile destroyer, the Strark, was hit by two Exocet missiles causing the death of 37 US sailors. The bizarre part of this story is that it was never really cleared up or pursued why Iraq, at the time an ostensible ally fighting Iran, would target and try to sink a U.S. ship. Supposedly, it was a case of mistaken identity and the pilot thought that they were engaging a oil tanker, but a missile destroyer and a oil tanker look nothing alike. The other bizarre detail is that the missiles were not launched from a fighter but a modified Falcon 50 business jet. The Phalanx system was on board but remained in standby mode.

Phalanx isn’t perfect and the multiple nets of radar and signals equipment meant to aid it failed both the Stark and the Cole. Indeed, aboard the Stark, it was a human watchman that sounded the alarm while standing on a Christmas tree of sensors seconds before the first Exocet hit. Further investment and upgrading of Phalanx and similar systems have lead to an increased ability, however.

Beset by asynchronous threats to its Navy problems in procedure and targeting seem to have been ironed out. Now, C-RAM systems such as one based on the Phalanx can protect ground troops, as well. Reportedly, they can engage up to 70% of all incoming rockets and mortars. But, similarly overblown claims have often been used in this arena, most notably with the performance of the Patriot missile defense system. Generally, many missiles and even mortars can be eliminated.

The Israeli variant, the Iron Dome, is a crucial element of Israel’s military system and deemed very successful. These systems make extensive use of Ku Band radar. 3D printing plays an important role in these radar systems, which we will discuss in another article.

C-RAM systems can protect troops and population centers from mortars and missiles. They combat asynchronous threats and can change the way forces are protected, in a completely automated way. Note that there is no ethical discussion about this because we’re not assumed to be killing people, just shooting missiles here. In this way, these defense systems will make automated kill decisions acceptable and perhaps commonplace.


There are three inherent vulnerabilities to these C-RAM systems, however. One is the targeting and tracking ability of the systems. Some can target 20 missiles at once and select between them. This is no easy feat and requires significant sensing and computing power. The central Drone Swarm thesis, however, is that, in the future, 1,000 drones at a time will be used against installations and troops. Phalanx can shoot down around five missiles before it has to be reloaded. While it is being reloaded, it is not active. Furthermore, eventually it will simply not have any ammo left. Supply drones could alleviate this, but possibly not in time. Hypersonic, supersonic, skimming missiles and the like could be far too quick for many of these systems, as well.

In summation, we can see that ,when we discuss automated drone-like solutions in warfare, we should not always be thinking about a lone robot or a lone craft. In contemporary networked warfare, layers of systems can engage targets and destroy them in an automated way. If we believe in a future of drone swarms, it is therefore important to note that the main adversaries of such systems will also be drone like systems themselves.

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