Super Bowl 51: Drone Swarms Become Real


Last weekend was one of the most amazing football games I’ve ever seen.  Given it set a lot of records, it isn’t hard to argue that Super Bowl 51 was the best ever, and even the half time show by Lady Gaga seemed to hit the right note.  But I wonder if people really realized that the American Flag drawn in lights behind her as she stood atop the stadium was created with an Intel powered drone swarm.  Drone swarms are new, and the only other place you are likely to see one is at Disney World as part of its new Starbright Holidays event

A drone swarm is hundreds of drones, up to 500 so far depending on venue, that fly in tight formation and use lights to create aerial pictures or form words.  Not only is this likely to revolutionize outdoor entertainment, drone swarms could change defensive weapons programs, maintenance programs, and even outdoor signage. 

Let’s talk about drone swarms this week

Drone Swarm

Strangely, when I think about drone swarms, I think back to last year’s Super Bowl that had one as well; though, as part of an Audi ad homage to the old movie The Birds, they were pretty scary.  Audi apparently likes to scare the crap out of potential Audi buyers (here is an ad with an Audi driver being attacked by Zombie mechanics).  Fortunately, they mellowed this year and created a commercial that is vastly friendlier.  But it was the dramatic presentation of Gaga on stage that gave the world a view of what a drone swarm looked like, but not what it could do. 

One of the more interesting implementations of drone swarms is in defense.  If you were able to take hundreds, if not thousands, of militarized drones, you could pretty much overwhelm any conventional defense and not put any of your soldiers’ lives at risk.  And given these drones are relatively inexpensive and don’t have to carry a human, so tend to be rather small, they could be far cheaper to deploy than fleets of aircraft.  Here is a video of a U.S. Fighter and a missile battery launching a swarm of hundreds of Micro-drones; you can’t even see the things without tracking, except for when they get close, and even if you didn’t put ordinance in them they’d sure freak the heck out of an attacking force.    Now you’ll notice that some of these drones get rather larger, but largest is likely the boat drone swarms used for harbor defense, escort, mine sensing or delivery, and other dangerous or simply boring missions.  Perhaps the most interesting, and scary, “feature” under development is mind control for drone swarms.  That sounds like the plot for a Science Fiction movie that will end badly (we didn’t realize the mind control link was bi-directional!).  

But these are not just used to attack people; they can be used to save them as well.  Carnegie Mellon University is working on drone swarm capability for first responders to locate people after a disaster who may be injured or trapped.  These drones work in collaboration with a mothership, or a larger drone, that coordinates the smaller drones to map out a disaster area and create safe paths for people or robots to do the actual rescue work.  This has been in development since 2015 and they are expected to be in service by 2020.  

Other uses for these drone swarms are infrastructure inspection, search and rescue, agriculture management, and to extend connectivityFacebook is working on this last for countries that don’t have Internet.  These all fall into a similar class of using Drones, which in this case are basically flying smart robots, to replace or supplement people and provide vastly greater coverage for far less cost than people could provide. 

Wrapping Up

From entertainment to defense and from inspection to rescue, drone swarms are either in production or expected to be in use in huge numbers by this time next century.  They could be used for or against us, and they do have issues like security, battery life, and reliability that we need to remain aware of.  They are only a small part of the increasingly autonomous robots that will eventually define this century, much as automobiles defined last century.  We are at the beginning of something rather amazing and it very well may be the first step toward a future where autonomous robots outnumber humans.   Wait, didn’t I see a movie like that?  Oh crap…   

Edited by Alicia Young
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President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group

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