US Air Force tests swarming smart bombs

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The US Air Force has tested for the first time smart bombs capable of collectively and autonomously selecting a target after deployment.

The Air Force Golden Horde Vanguard program completed the first-ever flight demonstration of the collaborative weapons last month. The Collaborative Small Diameter Bombs (CSDBs) use technology developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and Scientific Applications and Research Associates (SARA).

The CSDB is a Small Diameter Bomb that has been modified with a collaborative autonomy payload.

During the test on December 15 at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, a team from the Air Force Test Center flew an F-16 aircraft and released two CSDBs, which quickly established communication with each other and their seekers detected a GPS jammer. The weapons referred to pre-defined Rules of Engagement (RoEs), a set of constraints preloaded by a mission planner and determined that the jammer was not the highest priority target.

The weapons then collaborated to identify the two highest priority targets. However, due to an improper weapon software load the collaboration guidance commands were not sent to the weapon navigation system. Without the updated target locations, the weapons impacted a fail-safe target location.

Chris Ristich, director of AFRL’s Transformational Capabilities Office said, “The Golden Horde demonstration with the Small Diameter Bomb flights is an important step on the path to Networked Collaborative Weapon systems. Completion of this first mission sets the stage for further development and transition to the warfighter.”

This initial demonstration represents a critical first step for the Golden Horde program, an initiative focused on advancing networked, collaborative and autonomous (NCA) weapon capabilities through live and virtual testing.

NCA weapons observe and react to a dynamic battlespace in real time and are deployed in mass. They are designed to effectively share information and collaborate to overwhelm adversary defenses.

The main technologies enabling the capability include a home-on-GPS-jam seeker that gathers information about the battlespace, a software defined radio for communication between weapons and a processor preloaded with collaborative algorithms.

The collaborative algorithms use a dynamic approach called play calling.  A “play” is an established behavior that groups of collaborative weapons, or swarms, can enable (or disable) when they meet certain predefined conditions. Weapons that use this technology are semi-autonomous since they abide by pre-defined Rules of Engagement and only execute based on an approved list of plays.

Garry Haase, Director of the AFRL Munitions Directorate said, “This successful Golden Horde demonstration builds the foundation for integrating this technology into a variety of other weapon systems, which will help the US maintain a technological advantage over our adversaries.”

Steven Stockbridge, the Golden Horde Principal Investigator said, “I’m very pleased with results of this first test. The team saw good performance from the networked collaborative sub-systems and understand the root cause of the weapons not impacting the desired targets. We anticipate readiness for the next flight test.”

Two more CSDB flight tests are planned for early 2021, increasing the number of collaborative weapons in each demonstration to four.

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Ben has worked as a journalist and editor, covering almost all aspects of technology, engineering and industry for the last 20 years. Initially writing about subjects from nuclear submarines to autonomous cars to future design and manufacturing technologies, he was editor of a leading UK-based engineering magazine before eventually becoming editor of Aerospace Testing in 2017.

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