Military Robots as a Nature Analog

This very interesting essay looks at the future of military robotics and finds many analogs in nature:

Imagine a low-cost drone with the range of a Canada goose, a bird that can cover 1,500 miles in a single day at an average speed of 60 miles per hour. Planet Earth profiled a single flock of snow geese, birds that make similar marathon journeys, albeit slower. The flock of six-pound snow geese was so large it formed a sky-darkening cloud 12 miles long. How would an aircraft carrier battlegroup respond to an attack from millions of aerial kamikaze explosive drones that, like geese, can fly hundreds of miles? A single aircraft carrier costs billions of dollars, and the United States relies heavily on its ten aircraft carrier strike groups to project power around the globe. But as military robots match more capabilities found in nature, some of the major systems and strategies upon which U.S. national security currently relies -- perhaps even the fearsome aircraft carrier strike group -- might experience the same sort of technological disruption that the smartphone revolution brought about in the consumer world.

Posted on August 25, 2017 at 6:34 AM • 29 Comments


SeanAugust 25, 2017 7:50 AM

In the last Star Trek movie, something of that kind happened. Please, note that I'm not sure my comment is relevant, though may it provide an illustrate extreme example...

JorgeAugust 25, 2017 8:06 AM

How would they respond? With their own swarm, or an EMP, rapid fire lasers, etc.

Jack BootheAugust 25, 2017 8:30 AM

How would the US Navy handle a swarm of 12lb drones the size of geese heading toward a carrier? With a bunch of guys on deck with 12 gauges--just like we do every waterfowl season in the Midwest. Sometimes the solution to a high tech problem, is the application of a historical or anachronistic albeit a concomittant low tech asymmetrical solution.

GeorgeAugust 25, 2017 8:35 AM

Agreed with the premise of this article that militaries will need to adapt over time. Thought the initial statement of "a Canada goose, a bird that can cover 1,500 miles in a single day at an average speed of 60 miles per hour." was interesting... they must live in a 25 hour day then? :-)

Retired Secret SquirrelAugust 25, 2017 9:36 AM

Cute analogy, but we can't build anything as small as goose with that range, speed that could carry any significant payload.

Is everyone on the attack the Aircraft Carrier bandwagon these days?

Here's a tip, THEY DON"T Operate on ALONE.......It's called a Carrier Strike group for a reason. If someone were development a UAV like this, we'd know about it and be working on counter-measures....not to mention the Phallax gatling guns Navy ships use as point defense would do some serious damage to such a swarm

Impossibly StupidAugust 25, 2017 10:17 AM

I think it's a mistake to focus on military applications, because the real danger comes not from attacks on hardened targets, but acts of terror on civilian populations. Who gives a damn about building millions of sophisticated swarm robots to attack a battle ready aircraft carrier when you can just convince some extremist to hop in a car and drive it into an unsuspecting crowd? History has shown that wasteful military spending usually leaves a country so poor it is not worth defending.

JG4August 25, 2017 10:23 AM

In case it wasn't clear enough, I am a big fan of using biology as a guide. I suspect that they already have built something in that size and weight with at least equal performance and range. They have carbon fiber at their disposal and a high-performance adiabatic ceramic two-stroke turbodiesel will be considerably lighter than the equivalent power density in muscle and blood.

Probably better thermodynamic efficiency as well. My comments on the glide ratio of the U-2 can be used as a rough guide to what is possible for airframe efficiency. Interestingly enough ducks and geese fly in formation for the same reason that the 737 has winglets. The downstroke of each wing meets the upward swirl from the tip vortex of the birds ahead of it. The strongest bird flies lead and they switch off. Robotic trucks and cars will be able to utilize very close following, as I did when my reflexes were a lot sharper.

M. WelinderAugust 25, 2017 10:44 AM

"With a bunch of guys on deck with 12 gauges--just like we do every waterfowl season in the Midwest."

Different success criteria apply.

In the Midwest, success is roast bird tonight. If 99% got away, so what?

On a carrier, even hitting 99% might not be good enough. Heck, even hitting 100% might not be good enough. A red hot, 10lbs lump of shrapnel at 100mph will easily take out a jet.

And this is before anyone applies tricks such as having a good fraction of the robo-birds coming in at terminal velocity in near free fall.

Michael PAugust 25, 2017 11:24 AM

Besides the current technological limits of drones, this seems to ignore logistical issues. How cheap would these drones be? How much explosive would each one carry? If you have a million drones each with one pound of high explosive, how much does that cost, and where are you going to stage them before launch? The idea sounds like a movie plot devised by someone who has never worked in manufacturing.

albertAugust 25, 2017 11:49 AM

"Organic control":
AFAIK, the lead pigeon was not named Walter...

As discussed, conventionally-armed drone swarms can be dealt with. What about bad actors, using unconventional biological or radiological weapons? That's what I would worry about. Physical damage isn't necessary for a successful attack, and BIO/RAD packages can be small and lightweight.

One F-35 costs between 85 to 122 million USD.

If you hate your enemy enough, cost is no object...
. .. . .. --- ....

TatütataAugust 25, 2017 12:19 PM

Cute analogy, but we can't build anything as small as goose with that range, speed that could carry any significant payload.

I marvel at spiders, which humans will probably never equal despite their skills at creating stuff.

But "they" are already trying to create remote-controlled cockroaches, genetic engineering might provide a path for obtaining a configurable goose. (I sometimes had weird nightmares about reprogramming my cat. Reality is catching up.) After all, we already have created inbred freak animals through breeding, and generals on all sides have used dolphins, dogs, pigeons, monkeys, etc. to pursue their nefarious deeds in the name of their respective nations.

Wm HannahsAugust 25, 2017 12:33 PM

This has been my fear ever since we started using drones after 9/11. A decade on and drones are better and cheaper and the little kids who were hijacking drones by taking them over with a can of spray paint or retrieving ones which crashed... those kids have reverse engineer countless unencrypted American drones and are grown up now, if still alive.

Depending on whether they see the American led drone strikes of their homeland as liberating or oppressive, there could be a very real possibility there's a few angry drone hobbyists hailing from these war-torn worlds who might be motivated to pull off a coordinated strike composed of drone fleets which wouldn't need to fly 24 hours to reach their targets, but minutes originating from multiple spots in and around NYC.

Yes, the drones might not carry as much explosives but a carefully applied strike might only need the same finesse required to bullseye womp rats back home, as the famous rebel leader once quipped. Now imagine that finesse automated and scaled across a cloud of drones.

WaelAugust 25, 2017 1:24 PM

We learn a lot from 'nature'. The Sikorsky helicopter was inspired by the dragonfly, for example.

Birds fly in a V formation, sometimes named Skein. The picture shows the Skein team standing in a V formation! Coincidence? I think not!

So the thinking of this article is rational and sensible. We moved from mimicking single entities to groups of entities. Interesting times ahead.


But "they" are already trying to create remote-controlled cockroaches,

Funny, I thought of those specific insects, but they reminded me of a story @Clive Robinson shared a while back that turned my stomach upside down and inside out. So I opted to use my favorite insect for an example (no, my passwords have nothing to do with it, don't even think about it.)


Even TV shows used nature for some designs. The eagle was one of my favorite vehicles when I was young. Space 1999 used eagles. S2:E9 = this. The information was expected to be hard to interpret based on the shared secrets we built so far. When our handshake protocol (which this is part of) is completed, we'll be able to communicate in normal ways: saying something valid and on topic, but saying other things between the lines. I would be able, for example, to post a limerick that looks "funny" at the surface, but would encode other meanings too. Think of it as a way to counter crypto restrictions. We may have ways to go. The idea is to exchange a key, so to speak. Let's see how far this exercise goes.

Reply to: [Military Robots as a Nature Analog]: [t = 124] / name or alias of poster; if they exist, '-' denotes past, '+' denotes future event.

Future 'secret communications' should become progressively shorter, otherwise you and I will be deprived of communications altogether.

Jack BootheAugust 25, 2017 4:18 PM

How would the US Navy handle a swarm of 12lb drones the size of geese heading toward a carrier? With a bunch of guys on deck with 12 gauges--just like we do every waterfowl season in the Midwest. Sometimes the solution to a high tech problem, is the application of a historical or anachronistic albeit a concomittant low tech asymmetrical solution.

tyrAugust 25, 2017 4:51 PM

The military has always poured money down
the rathole of the last war thinking a
bigger better version of the last winning
weapon will keep them safer next time.

I call this Gatling Gun Theory, professor
Gatling wanted to invent a weapon so horrible
war would become unthinkable. His weapon
worked and the shipboard version is Phalanx
or SeaWhizz. His theory was a failure and
you can't pour enough money into it to make
it work. Aircraft Carriers worked because of
all the expensive battleships investment on
the bottom of Pearl Harbor. The Carrier was
obseleted by the ICBM and satellite recon.
We used to practice stuff like "atomic hit
1/4 mile aft". That would have spread us all
on the bulkheads like peanut butter but it
sounded good to the brass who were buying
bigger and better Carriers.

The history of warfare is the continuous
shift of offense and defense through technologies
and there is no more expensive investment than
the one in older superceded tech. The Harpoon
game series noticed in the 1980s that Cruise
missle swarms could take out Carrier groups
the miniaturization and increased targets just
make it worse. It's called Fuzzy Wuzzy theory
in the trade based on a famous incident that
broke the Invincible British square formation.

The most dangerous avenue is to think you have
everything figured out and know where to do
your investment in security. Someone will come
right through your blind spot and tip over the

RhysAugust 25, 2017 7:01 PM

Talk about the Musgrave approach. More about insecurity than security on this topic. Hard to evade some oversimplification. Still- there's a few points that might give you pause. Didn't think MAD (mutually assured destruction) could be improved upon. Wrong challenge to throw down to some people.

First off- air breathers. Canadian geese migrate as high as ~9,000 AMSL. Bar-headed geese go higher I am told, can fly through Mt. Everest area which is topped at ~29,000' AMSL. UAVs, say on JP-8 are 2x's that altitude. Other non-air breather UAV go higher including near space. And can emerge from below water line.

Second- WWII battle tactics are for TV re-enactment, not real life. Such as the battleships of WWI that were displaced by aircraft carriers for forward power prosecution. Leapfrogging the armies and navies to hold civilian populations hostage as quickly as possible is the objective. Now CVs more of a...synthetic island, no longer a lone wolf (supra reference to carrier group). In a world of non-kinetic weapons (energy) and now hybrid weapons (e.g. the rail gun)...there isn't enough armor to keep the 'island' afloat or mobile. Some weapons now capable of a focused concussion (acoustic compression) wave. (Large area) Not just EMP or HEMP.

Third- were moving to DDG/DDx, FF & LCS (for surface warfare) for good reasons. 3rd world country count engagements is shrinking- 2nd world and BRIC requires different approaches w/speed of adaptability essential. 40 year weapons platforms is museum quality. (Remember how well the Brits felt during the Falkland Island confrontation & the row boat with Exocet, 'flying fish' missile?)

Fourth- Unlike nature's birds, a single synthetic specie can carry another flock specie to a point of dispatch. Not just in the air. In near space. On the land, on the water, and under the water. Swarms are not specie exclusive.

Nice way to start the weekend. I think I'll go watch UP movie.

Nick PAugust 25, 2017 11:17 PM

@ Wael

re boards

I thought you were going to reference the test of the gun I was thinking about in anti-drone warfare. Ok, just Bruce Lee with the implication that the tiny drones could fight back enough to destroy the steel hardware. Maybe, maybe not. Depends on the implementation. Metal Storm could tear a lot of them up first, though. :)

WaelAugust 26, 2017 12:17 AM

@Nick P,

Pretty impressive stuff.

I thought you were going to reference the test

Yes appropriate for everyone. But Bruce Lee is more fit for you ;)

Just_some_personAugust 28, 2017 5:48 AM

On offense.
Depends on how big the flock is allowed to be. If one piles enough drones on deck it'll sink.

For the goose shoot, think payloads in the 1 lb range, like grenades, small shaped charges, explosively formed projectiles and thermobaric weapons on the simple kill side and incendiaries, chaff, mines or robots on the more interesting side.

A 12 lb goose diving from 9k feet can probably do quite a bit of mess to screw up flight operations on a carrier.

On defense today.
Even with a deep magazine the ciws will not have enough ammo, or you'd not launch an attack until the ciws could be mobbed.

Defense in depth and running away. They can move when the need too. Maybe not 60mph, given enough warning and an open ocean they'll get away.

The ECM suites, both plane and ship based.

On defense tomorrow.

ciws is getting updated to lasers this may help the ammunition problem.

HERF is a good possibility for airborne swarms.

more ECM.

Offense in the future.

Salt the swarm with special purpose devices that go for critical infrastructure like the antenna farm.

Why go for a swarm when you can go for a lone gundrone? These sorts of engines probably don't operate well after ingesting drones into their engines. Doing that on the landing approach .. that'd make a mess.

Remember you probably don't want to sink a couple nuclear reactors in your fishing grounds.... it's not good, disabling or rendering useless is a better plan.

As was already stated. Don't go after the sharp and pointy spear, go after the baggage train. The Navy is there to protect shipping and project power. If the Navy can cope somewhat. The shipping will be completely unable to deal.

ab praeceptisAugust 28, 2017 6:30 AM


As it comes up again, let me mention just three points that make the phalanx/ciws solution look very questionable:
a) those systems have rather limited ammo (typ. a couple of hundred). Hearing that they can fire so and so many thousands of times per second is somewhat misleading as that makes many think that there is lots of ammo loaded, which is not the case.
b) those systems are based on the assumption of targets that approach on some kind of course which can be analyzed and calculated which is hardly the case with geese (which, however, have the advantage of flying comparatively snail-slow).
c) those (like most other) systems haven't been designed for organic (or plastic, being at that) attackers but for targets that are radar visible.

b and c also hold true for laser systems unless target detection and following aren't changed, too, which seems rather improbable considering the relative danger of geese vs. anti-ship missiles or attack boats.

So it might, in fact, be a quite successful way to attack ships with a rel. large number of mid sized largely plastic drones carrying and dropping a rel. small amount of mil. grade explosives and flying unpredictable courses and not in a tight group but well spread out and from diverse directions.

Clive RobinsonAugust 28, 2017 2:34 PM

@ Just_some_person,

ciws is getting updated to lasers this may help the ammunition problem.

And it will still have limited fire power. Lasers look good in SiFi movies and people think they are wonderful. They are not. The problem as with conventional kinetic weapons is "inefficiency" thus "heat". Fire too many bullets down a barrel in too short a time and like all metals it will start to expand etc and the weapon will need to stop firing. It's part of the reason for multi-barrel weapons. One gun that uses 36 barrels and uses electrically fired caseless rounds can fire at rate of over a million rounds per minute. But only has 180 rounds in it and currently can not be reloaded only replaced,

The thing is kinetic weapons follow Newtons first law of conservation of linear momentum. Which effectively means the energy from firing the bullet stays with it till it gets another force acting upon it. Which means unlike a laser where the beam diverges the energy remains concentrated at the target. Another problem with lasers is the optics like gun barrels they heat up and thus have problems.

Which brings us around to,

HERF is a good possibility for airborne swarms.

High Energy Radio Frequency weapons also suffer from beam divergence, but being several decades in frequency less their wavelength is measured in centimeters not angstroms or nano meters. Thus focusing / Collimating the beam is a lot more difficult due to physical size.

All things considered firing a "Davey Crockett" into the swarm would be a lot more effective than other weapons as you get a combined EMP pulse as well as significant blast wave that will rob the drones of their ability to fly.

However firing a tactical nuke at such close in range obviously has other fairly well documented problems.

The thing is if you want to take out a carrier group the easiest way is to put a tactical nuke in a modern torpedo missile and detonate it in close vacinity to the aircraft carrier. The hydro static force generated would at the very least break the carriers back and even if it did not sink it would be out of action for it's intended purpose, which means the basic premise of "projecting power" comes to an end.

The thing is as I've said before "carrier groups" had their brief moment in time in WWII and that is a long long time gone. They can only project power against a significantly inferior force, not much more than goat hearders and deffencless citizens. Likewise the age of piloted jets is comming to an end. Pilots can not survive the g-forces needed to avoid a large number of comparitivly inexpensive modern weapons systems.

ab praeceptisAugust 28, 2017 4:20 PM

Clive Robinson

Yes. Plus plenty other problems. One being the energy needed, not so much because of the amounts but because of the form which translates to super-capacitor banks which bring their own set of problems along; the whole thing is a nightmare in terms of a logistics and maintenance, unlike a gun which is a relatively simple largely mechanical device.

For the sake of an example: The Russians still have people with flags (and red one and a white one) to guide many things, e.g. tanks, Iskander systems etc. Often smirked at in the western world as being yester-century the Russians stick to it because it's extremely simple and reliable and that's exactly what you want in a war. No logistics or maintenance needed is just perfect.

Another problem scifi fans seem to overlook is that those laser weapons do *not* work like "Bang, done" but rather like relatively slowly melting (a hopefully critical part of) the target, which translates to a need to very precisely track the target.

And there is, of course, the fact that energy beams rapidly become weaker over distance.

Now, compare to all that trouble a good oldstyle, say 125 mm (~ 5") ship cannon ... and those high tech weapons don't look that great any more, at least in practical military terms.

225August 31, 2017 8:21 AM

Talking about attacking an aircraft carrier and no mention of supercavitating torpedos? Why do you need to make a robotic fleet of bullet dodging geese when you could emulate a fast moving rock that would be much more successful.

nixhrSeptember 1, 2017 4:36 PM

Kill Decision by Daniel Suarez gives a very detailed and horrifying view on the future of swarm drone robotics. Excellent read BTW.

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