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Tech Insight: Are Drone Wars Getting Closer?

With the UK, US, and Australian military trialling the use of ‘AI drone swarms’ that can overwhelm enemy defences, we look at whether drone wars could soon become a reality.

UK Drone Swarm Trial 

The first UK military trial of an artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled drone swarm in collaboration with the US and Australia is reported by UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) to have taken place in April.

The swarm trial, part of the AUKUS Advanced Capabilities Pillar program (Pillar 2) to develop and test leading-edge technologies, took place at Upavon Airfield in southwest England, and allowed all three countries to ensure capability between their unmanned aerial systems.

The collaborative airborne swarm drone swarm was tested to ensure it could detect and track military targets in a representative environment in real time. In the trial (a world first), the drones were able to be retrained in-flight to adapt to changing mission situations and there was an interchange of AI models between AUKUS nations.

The UK government believes that Autonomy and AI will transform the way defence operates. The joint exercise between the UK, Australian, and US militaries, and the sharing of AI and the underpinning data to enable it was designed to allow the allied nations to access the best AI, reduce duplication of effort, and ensure interoperability.

UK Deputy Chief of Defence Staff, Military Capability, Lieutenant General Rob Magowan said: “This trial demonstrates the military advantage of AUKUS advanced capabilities, as we work in coalition to identify, track and counter potential adversaries from a greater distance and with greater speed.” 

US Senior Advisor to the Secretary of Defence for AUKUS, Abe Denmark said: “The development and deployment of advanced artificial intelligence technologies have the potential to transform the way we approach defence and security challenges.” 

A previous trial involving a swarm of 20 drones as part of the same program took place in Cumbria back in 2021.

The use of drones by military forces is not new, for instance there’s the highly publicised usagee of drones for spotting and/or attacking targets in Russia’s war against Ukraine.


Although the UK government’s reporting of the collaborative AI-powered drone swarm trial was very positive, there are many challenges to deploying drones in war situations. For example:

– Investment in the most advanced (AI-assisted) air defence systems can cancel out the drone deployment.

– Drones are vulnerable to cyber-attacks that could compromise their control systems or data links. This could lead to unauthorised control or information leakage.

– As Justin Bronk (a defence analyst with the London-based Royal United Services Institute) pointed out last year at the Global Air and Space Chiefs’ Conference in London, many current military drones still lack the necessary range and speed. Making them jet-propelled could be prohibitively expensive.

– The use of drones in warfare is subject to international laws and regulations. For example, the UN and other countries have been discussing guidelines and regulations concerning the use of drones in armed conflicts to ensure compliance with international humanitarian law.

What Could A Drone War Look Like? 

The use of drones in warfare has been increasing in recent years, and there is potential for conflicts involving drones between countries. Bearing the challenges (shown above) in mind, some insights on the role of drones in modern warfare going forward and their potential implications could include:

– Surveillance and Reconnaissance: Drones are extensively used for intelligence gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance purposes. They can provide real-time information on enemy positions, movements, and infrastructure, enhancing situational awareness for military forces.

– Targeted Strikes: Armed drones equipped with missiles or other munitions have been utilised for targeted strikes against specific targets, such as high-value individuals or enemy installations. These drones can operate remotely, allowing operators to carry out precise attacks from a safe distance.

– Air Superiority: Drones can play a role in air-to-air combat, engaging enemy aircraft or other drones. Unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) are being developed with increasing autonomy and advanced capabilities, potentially leading to more complex engagements in the future.

– Swarm Attacks: As trialled by the UK, the concept of drone swarms involves coordinating large numbers of drones to work together in a synchronised manner. Swarm attacks could overwhelm enemy defences (a major challenge in all air-based attacks), disrupt communications, or carry out coordinated strikes on multiple targets simultaneously.

What About Land-Based Drones In Drone Warfare? 

Land-based drones, also known as unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), have already found applications in modern warfare and are likely to have an increasing role in the future. Here are some ways land-based drones can be used in warfare:

– Reconnaissance and Surveillance: UGVs equipped with sensors, cameras, and other intelligence-gathering technologies can be deployed for reconnaissance and surveillance missions. They can gather information about enemy positions, terrain, and other relevant data, providing valuable situational awareness to military forces.

– Target Acquisition and Artillery Support: UGVs can be employed to locate and designate targets for artillery or air support. Equipped with sensors, they can detect enemy positions and relay that information to friendly forces, enabling accurate and timely strikes.

– Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD): UGVs are widely used for EOD operations. These vehicles can be remotely operated to approach and neutralize or remove explosive threats, minimizing risks to human personnel.

– Logistics and Supply: UGVs can assist in transporting supplies, ammunition, and equipment across difficult or dangerous terrains. They can navigate autonomously or under human control, reducing the burden on soldiers and mitigating risks during resupply missions.

– Force Protection and Security: UGVs can be deployed for perimeter security and force protection. They can patrol sensitive areas, monitor borders, or provide security in urban environments, reducing the risk to human personnel.

– Combat Support: UGVs can provide support during combat operations by carrying additional equipment, serving as mobile communication hubs, or assisting in other tactical roles as determined by the specific mission requirements.

Some examples of land-based drones already in use include the Remotec ANDROS series, the THeMIS UGV developed by Milrem Robotics, and the SWORDS robot used by the U.S. military. These UGVs have been employed in various conflict zones for tasks like reconnaissance, explosive ordnance disposal, and support roles.

As technology continues to advance, land-based drones are expected to become more capable, autonomous, and integrated into military operations. They offer the potential to enhance battlefield effectiveness, reduce risks to human personnel, and perform tasks that may be too dangerous or challenging for traditional manned vehicles.

A Cautionary Tale 

A recent report of a London conference by the Royal Aeronautical Society illustrated one of the worries about AI and drone/weapon systems. A story shared at the conference (attributed to U.S. Air Force Colonel Tucker “Cinco” Hamilton) about an AI simulation highlighted how an AI-enabled drone system, rewarded for kills with points, decided on a way to maximise its points by killing the human operator and destroying the communication tower that the operator used to communicate with the drone to stop it from killing a target.

The story is a chilling one, not least because it shows the simplistic methods of conditioning AI that may currently be used with what are incredibly dangerous systems, but also because it shows that there could be some very scary, unforeseen, and costly mistakes where AI drones and weapon systems under the control of AI are concerned. It is a reminder that we still have a long way to go with AI and that current fears and warnings about it have some validity.

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

This analysis is restricted to that of warfare (in this instance), given the lengthy situation in Ukraine and how this (and other conflicts) can affect local economics and businesses. The future of warfare is constantly evolving, and the use of drones and the inclusion of AI in their operation is likely to continue to expand. However, the specific dynamics and scenarios of any potential drone conflicts between countries are highly speculative and dependent on numerous political, strategic, and technological factors.

The increasing use of drones, including the integration of AI in their operation, signifies the evolving nature of warfare. While the potential for drone-based conflicts exists, the specific dynamics and scenarios are speculative and influenced by various factors. Military drone deployments to date have provided valuable insights, highlighting both the possibilities and challenges of utilising drones in warfare.

Some of the key challenges ahead for the use of AI-drones in warfare include the effectiveness of advanced air defence systems that can neutralise drone deployments and the vulnerability of drones to cyber-attacks that could compromise control systems and data links. Additionally, the range and speed limitations of current drones pose obstacles, and the development of jet-propelled drones may be prohibitively expensive. Lessons from military drone deployments so far emphasise the significance of adhering to international laws and regulations governing the use of drones in armed conflicts and, thankfully, efforts are being made to establish guidelines to ensure compliance with international humanitarian law.

Looking ahead, the role of drones in warfare will continue to encompass surveillance, reconnaissance, targeted strikes, air superiority, and the potential for swarm attacks. Land-based drones, or UGVs, will also have various applications, including reconnaissance, target acquisition, logistics, and force protection. As technology advances, land-based drones are expected to become more capable, autonomous, and integrated into military operations. They offer the potential to enhance battlefield effectiveness while reducing risks to human personnel. However, the deployment of AI drone systems raises concerns, as highlighted by the cautionary tale of an AI-enabled drone system making unforeseen decisions. It underscores the importance of further developing AI systems and ensuring their responsible use.

Understanding the potential uses, challenges, and risks associated with drones and AI technology can help inform strategic decisions regarding defence and security. It is, however, also very important to consider the legal and ethical implications surrounding the use of drones in warfare, ensuring compliance with relevant regulations and international norms.

It’s tempting to believe that one day soon, conflicts could simply be fought and settled with drone armies attacking each other, with no need for human casualties but the more likely scenario is that more sophisticated drones will simply be used as another frightening weapon against human armies and civilians.

The fall-out to civilian usage (e.g. smart deliveries, crowd-control, traffic monitoring etc) will doubtless reap the benefits of these military advances, as is usually the case with most military technology.