US Navy's LOCUST UAV launching cannon
The US Navy is now trialling a cannon launcher that shoots out UAVs which can fly in a swarm to complete reconnaissance missionsUS Navy Office of Naval Research

The US Navy has announced that it is now testing a new system which launches by cannon a multitude of flying robot drones which can then carry out missions together with very little human input.

The Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology (LOCUST) system currently being trialled by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) enables 30 swarm robots to be launched per minute from a tube. The unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) look like small missiles as they launch from the cannon, and then open up to fly together in formation.

Once in the air, the drones can fly for up to 90 minutes at a time and they are meant to be used to autonomously overwhelm an adversary and provide the Marines with a tactical advantage during warfare.

The LOCUST drone tube launcher is designed to be very compact so that it can be used to deploy drone swarms from ships, tactical vehicles, aircraft or other unmanned platforms.

The technology is still being developed, but the ONR has so far been able to demonstrate that nine UAVs launched into the air were able to establish a completely autonomous UAV synchronisation and formation flight.

The researchers were also able to use the tube cannon to launch the US Navy's existing Coyote UAVs, which are able to carry payloads of varying weights during missions.

"The recent demonstrations are an important step on the way to the 2016 ship-based demonstration of 30 rapidly launched autonomous, swarming UAVs," said ONR program manager Lee Mastroianni.

"This level of autonomous swarming flight has never been done before. UAVs that are expendable and reconfigurable will free manned aircraft and traditional weapon systems to do more, and essentially multiply combat power at decreased risk to the warfighter."

The timing of the ONR's announcement is quite fortuitous – a recent report by the Center for New American Security detailed the reasons why the US military is now looking towards drones to provide intelligence, and this week military officials from around the world will be given the chance to convince the United Nations why autonomous weapons should be allowed on battlefields at an ongoing summit in Geneva.

"Uninhabited systems can help bring mass back to the fight by augmenting human-inhabited combat systems with large numbers of lower cost uninhabited systems to expand the number of sensors and shooters in the fight," Paul Scharre wrote in the report.

"Because they can take more risk without a human onboard, uninhabited systems can balance survivability against cost, affording the ability to procure larger numbers of systems."