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These startups are creating drone swarms for the military

Insects, ghosts, manta rays, cobras — these are the new form factors for swarming drones and the startups creating them.

By Freya Pratty and Kai Nicol-Schwarz

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Credit: Image by Jared Brashier

This is the third of a four-part series on how armies around the world are embracing startups to give them a technological edge. The first was an overview, the second was about human augmentation, this one is about autonomous drones, and the next is about AI and data.

Swarming attack drones are the latest hot piece of tech for militaries. 

This year has seen announcements about France’s Icarus project, the Russian Lightning, the Spanish RAPAZ and the UAE/South African N-Raven, as well as from the Indian army.

What is a drone swarm? It’s not just a large group of drones, but a group that collaborates together using some form of artificial intelligence to make semi-autonomous tactical decisions and overwhelm defences.

One study by the US army suggested that swarming would make attack drones at least 50% more lethal while decreasing the losses they took from defensive fire by 50%.

Many of these drone swarms are being created by big defence companies such as Raytheon, but startups across Europe are looking at ways to take drone technology further. 

Who are they?

Cobras and ghosts

Blue Bear Systems Research, based in the UK, is building strategic air autonomy solutions for the UK’s MoD, including drone swarms. Earlier this year the company tested a swarm of 20 flying in formation, the UK’s largest swarm to date.

Drone swarm
Drone swarm. Credit: Blue Bear.

The company also works on other projects, including electric and hydrogen engines for aircraft. It characterises itself as an ‘agile integrator’ focused on being able to bring together new technologies and quickly test them.

“Since the dawn of time, mankind has wanted to put more distance between the warfighter and the enemy. What we’re doing is putting more of that distance in.”

“If you’re creating new technology and products every six months, you’ve got to make sure you have agile assurance with it as well,” says Yoge Patel, CEO at Blue Bear.

The company has up to recently been around 95% focused on military applications, but is now expanding to work on more civilian projects. This is partly because civilian applications of drone technology are becoming more of a reality, with drone delivery companies like Manna running pilot programmes, and European regulators starting to issue licenses for drones to fly more widely.

Now some 40% of Blue Bear’s work is civilian, says Patel. So far the company has not sought external investment but is looking to do so now for the first time.

Patel says that while it is easy to work with the innovation departments of frontline commands — who are “absolutely precise in their understanding of what they do and don’t want” — general MoD procurement can be challenging. There’s a desire to engage with more agile innovators, but in practice they’re not quite there yet. The MoD targets 25% of its procurement spend to go to SMEs by 2022, she tells Sifted, in contrast to the US which targets over 50% to go to smaller companies.

Blue Bear is interested in expanding into areas such as maritime, looking at technologies for mine countermeasures, and using unmanned air and sea vehicles to help keep bigger ships safe from attack. One of the key future directions is ‘force multipliers’ that bring together hundreds of different defence systems at the press of one button.

“Since the dawn of time, mankind has wanted to put more distance between the warfighter and the enemy. What we’re doing is putting more of that distance in,” says Patel.

Bugs and manta-rays

Animal Dynamics, a spinout from Oxford University in the UK, has a unique approach to developing military tech. The team’s work is based on biomechanics: taking traits and behavioural patterns from animals and replicating them in machines.

So far, they’ve built a silent underwater drone that looks like a manta ray, a logistics delivery vehicle based on a stork, and a microdrone with four wings like a dragonfly.

“In the natural world, if you’re less efficient than your competitor you have to eat more and therefore you’re less likely to survive. So efficiency is deeply built in.”

“To start off, we look at some of the areas in biophysics where there’s an unusual performance gain, so that might be being quieter, more efficient or more resilient,” explains Alex Caccia, the company’s CEO.

“In the natural world, if you’re less efficient than your competitor you have to eat more and therefore you’re less likely to survive,” he says. “So efficiency is kind of deeply built into what they do.”

Once the team has identified a trait that makes an animal efficient, they look at which products could benefit from those gains. The company’s manta ray drone, for example, replaces a propeller with the flapping motion of a ray.

“If you’re navigating around coral reefs, propellers are pretty lousy to have spinning around, whereas flapping is actually incredibly gentle,” says Caccia.

The company’s unmanned logistics vehicle takes traits from the wings of storks, which allow the birds to travel long distances by being as light as possible. The vehicle’s structure also copies the fluid dynamics seen in sharks’ mouths.

It’s not just the shape of animals that the company copies; they also study the behavioural traits that heighten animals’ efficiency. The logistics vehicle, for example, takes inspiration from how groups of animals transport things.

“Taking a large load from A to B, it stands to me that the way nature would do this would be to have lots of small vehicles, so that if you lose a few on the way, you still achieve your mission.”

“If you’re going to fulfil a mission, taking a large load from A to B, it stands to me that the way nature would do this would be to have lots of small vehicles, so that if you lose a few on the way, you still achieve your mission — whereas the way we’re used to doing is getting the largest vehicle possible,” Caccia says.

Animal Dynamics has received a number of grants from the UK government, including a recent partnership with the Marines to use the manta ray drone to spy on potential enemy warships and submarines.

The company has also raised £20m from VCs so far — mainly from Oxford Sciences Innovation, an early-stage VC partnered with Oxford University, and Kindred Capital. Although defense and security hasn’t been the easiest sector to raise capital in, Caccia says he’s seen a mood shift amongst VCs.

“I think there is a realisation within kind of, within the sort of top tier VCs that the market is definitely worth looking at,” he says. “I think everybody knows how much technology has come out of the interface between defence and the technology sector.”

European drone companies to watch:

SeeByte

Edinburgh-based SeeByte develops smart software systems for unmanned underwater vehicles. Its clients include the Belgian navy, which uses the software in its underwater drones and its mine warfare.

Flare Bright

UK aerospace company Flare Bright is developing autonomous drones with embedded AI that can help frontline troops get situational awareness in difficult conditions. The company had funding from the UK’s Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) to develop the SnapShot – a rugged nanodrone, designed to be the simplest way to obtain aerial images at the touch of a button and send them straight to a smart phone or tablet.

Swarm Systems

This UK-based sttartup, launched in 2007, builds tiny reconnaissance drones, weighing less than 250g for military use. Swarm Systems believes that in the future swarms of up to 8000 drones could be released in a single drop over a conflict zone, to a large extent replacing the need for “boots on the ground”

Malloy Aeronautics

Founder Chris Malloy started off trying to create a hoverbike, a lightweight sit-on aircraft, but subsequently pivoted to making unmanned cargo drones. The company has been working with the US DoD and teh UK MoD to test drone deliveries as a way of resupplying troops. The drones were part of the recent experimental exercise, called Advance Autonomous Force 4.0, in which the UK’s Royal Marines tested drone swarm technology. 

Icarus Swarms 

This Bodeaux-based drone swarm company uses commercially available drones from French drone maker Parrot, but develops machine learning software for controlling the drones, focusing specifically on military, police and emergency services use. At the beginning of the year the company unveiled a new system that would allow users to deploy swarms of up to 50 drones.  

Israel: General Robotics, Roboteam and Percepto

Israel has developed some of the most advanced military drones — the Israeli government is widely acknowledged to be exceptional in its involvement in the startup ecosystem, and there is a well-trodden path from Israeli military units such as the Unit 8200 cybersecurity section to startups. Israeli drone companies include General Robotics, which explicitly develops autonomous robots for counter-terrorist special forces units. The company was set up in 2009 by Ehud Gal, the former scientific deputy to the Israeli head of the defense ministry’s R&D authority, and has so far been entirely bootstrapped. The French and Israeli armies are among General Robotics customers.

Tel Aviv-based Roboteam, similarly, makes autonomous ground robots for armed forces including the UK, Singapore and Swiss ministries of defense as well as several branches of the US military. The robots are believed to have been used by the Israeli defence force to discover tunnels built by Hezbollah fighters. Roboteam raised a $50m Series B round from Generali Group in 2016.

Percepto, a 2014-launched startup that has developed a “drone in a box” solution, a base for sheltering an recharging drones. The company raised a $45m Series B funding round at the end of last year and has recently partnered to create a recharging station for Boston Dynamic’s dog-like Spot robot.

Freya Pratty is Sifted’s news reporter. She tweets from @FPratty

Kai Nicol-Schwarz is a reporter at Sifted. He tweets from @NicolSchwarzK

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