Russia Developing Autonomous 'Swarm of Drones' in New Arms Race With U.S., China

Semi-autonomous drone
A semi-autonomous drone: Humans are on the cusp of developing fully autonomous weapons capable of picking their own targets. DARPA

Russia is working toward developing artificial intelligence for unmanned aerial vehicles that could one day be unified to form “swarms of drones,” the company responsible for harnessing the technology said Monday. While unmanned drones have already become a common feature of modern warfare, the new arms race includes completely autonomous vehicles, able to operate without human intervention.

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In Russia, the Kronstadt Group is in charge of developing the technology for both military and civilian usage. The company’s CEO has said it is inevitable that “swarms of drones” will one day fly over combat zones,

“It will, undoubtedly, happen in the future,” Armen Isaakyan told Russia’s state news agency Tass. “To date, it’s too early to talk about such ‘swarms’ except for some secret programs, perhaps. Still, there already exist completely autonomous AI operation systems that provide the means for UAV clusters, when they fulfill missions autonomously, sharing tasks between them, and interact.”

Isaakyan added that his company is also working on a drone defense system, something he said will become “obligatory.”

Russia is far from alone in looking to a future of autonomous warfare. In January, the U.S. Department of Defense released video footage of a launch of 103 miniature artificial intelligence drones from a fighter jet in California. The drones share “one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature,” said William Roper, director of the Strategic Capabilities Office at the Department of Defense.

China also has been experimenting with the technology. In February, it set a world record when a formation of 1,000 drones performed at an air show in Guangzhou. The state-owned China Electronics Technology Group Corporation has claimed that “our swarming drone technology is the top of the world.”

Russia appears to have an advantage in its attempts to keep up with military rivals China and the U.S.: In addition to developing technology, Kronstadt Group has a virtual battlefield for testing robots and drones.

“We have developed a new version of the combat virtual trainer that now includes drones and robots and is more flexible and able to integrate with other developers’ synthetic trainers,” Isaakyan said.

The tool has been specifically developed for the Russian army.

“Combining mathematical models with the visual display system in a sole virtual 3D space with a realistic environment makes it possible to model and optimize the operation of joint force groups, including manpower and any equipment such as helicopters, tanks, armored personnel carriers, drones, and robots,” Isaakyan added.

Critics have warned of the dangers of autonomous warfare. Professor Toby Walsh of Australia's UNSW’s School of Computer Science and Engineering has traveled to the United Nations on multiple occasions to urge the international body to prevent future proliferation. 

"It’s not just me but thousands of my colleagues working in the area of robotics...and we’re very worried about the escalation of an arms race,” he told News.com.au in February.