The summer of 2016 will mark a significant moment in the future of air warfare: swarms of US Navy robots will leave the laboratory and be tested in the field. In the past, small numbers of extremely expensive manned aircraft were the norm, but, in the next few years, large numbers of cheap, expendable drones will be deployed in real-world situations. The US Navy's Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology (LOCUST) programme is fusing unmanned aircraft into a swarm, and will demonstrate 30 drones flying together somewhere over the ocean.
The challenge won't be just getting them in the air at the same time -- what makes a group into a swarm is its ability to co-ordinate.
"A swarm operates as a unit," says Stephen Crampton, CEO of Swarm Systems, an autonomous-systems startup based in Hertfordshire. "It has a mission that it has to carry out, and it is self-reconfiguring so that if one drone gets taken out, the others autonomously change their behaviour to complete the mission."