The role of armed drones in the airspace of the future – Sciences et Avenir

In the last 20 years, military drones have played an increasingly important role in armed conflicts, deciding the outcome of the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020. According to Ulrike Franke, a researcher at the European Council on International Relations (ECFR), This conflict marked a turning point, because for the first time two states clashed using drones. From now on, countries that are far from being great military powers can easily arm themselves and win battles, sourcing from Turkey or China. Worse, it is even possible for non-state actors to have an air force, hijacking civilian drones for terrorist or military purposes.
This is the new terrain on which the war of the future will unfold, warns the expert specializing in European and German security policy in response to questions from Stern magazine. However, Germany continues to face a dilemma, because public opinion is reluctant to use armed drones, which it believes have autonomy for decision-making and which a priori associates with specific and potentially illegal objectives. Since the State must guarantee the security of the territory, however, it must invest even if only in defense systems against drones.
Faced with increasing proliferation and automation, it is really necessary to develop a new type of air defense, based on detection and neutralization methods adapted to these more numerous aircraft, often smaller and more mobile than conventional aircraft, conventional equipment. Currently, investments are focused on a generation of combat drones endowed with swarm capabilities based on artificial intelligence. According to Ulrike Franke, these drones, which “work together, cooperate with each other, exchange information and pursue a common goal”, represent the next big step in military development.

Air defense: how to detect drone intrusions?

How does Germany plan to defend itself against drone attacks? According to the specialized magazine Drones, our neighbors have two systems to protect civil airports against drones that have entered illegally. The first, coordinated by the University of the Bundeswehr in Hamburg, and still in the testing phase, involves an interceptor drone called “Falke” (hawk) to capture the intruder drone using a net. Capable of reaching a speed of 120 km / h, Falke detects aircraft using radars and sensors, films them with a camera and, thanks to a direction finder (a radiodetermination device), can also roughly determine the location of the operator. guide the unwanted object. An artificial intelligence collects the collected data, before the interception maneuver is activated by order of a police officer. The net deployed by Falke makes it possible to capture and not shoot down the intruder, to avoid collateral damage in civilian areas and to preserve the object as evidence. A demonstration of the Falke project took place at the end of September 2021 in Hamburg in the presence of Federal Minister of Transport Andreas Scheuer (CSU), who admired its efficiency. However, due to the rather windy weather, the drone only completed half of the planned interception attempts.
Faced with these disparate results, a private competitor, the Aaronia company, would appear more advanced, already supplying prestigious clients such as London’s Heathrow airport. Based on low and high frequency sensors, the radar system called Aartos is detection only, but it prides itself on being able to monitor the entire frequency spectrum over a 50 km range and being able to detect the smaller drone and its pilot as soon as the device is on, its advantage is that it operates this scan hundreds of times per second. For the trade magazine, there is no doubt that this competition will soon attract the Federal Ministry of Transport, because those responsible for German air traffic control are looking precisely for an optimal detection system.

Securing the U-Space

In terms of safety, it also remains to configure an airspace intended for unmanned aircraft, called U-Space, and required by 2023 by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). Funded by the Federal Ministry of Transport, since May 2021 a large-scale test has been carried out in the port of Hamburg, the Hanseatic city being particularly suitable for the exercise because it has a complex airspace comprising two airports, a port , numerous roads. and other critical infrastructure. The U-Space established in Hamburg extends for this experiment over an area of ​​30 km2; it could serve as a model for the rest of the country, and even, it is hoped, beyond the borders.

As the newspaper Welt explains, it is the company Droniq, a subsidiary of German Air Safety (DFS) and Deutsche Telekom, which manages this airspace, ensuring traffic control and coordination. Therefore, it issues flight permits after verification of the pilot’s fitness and records all manned and unmanned flights. A system specially developed for U-Space processes the data of all registered flights and indicates to drone pilots the areas of potential danger or those over which it is prohibited to fly over. The pilots thus have a complete picture of the air situation, allowing them to fly their drone out of their field of vision.

Germany expects a rapid increase in drone traffic, not only for the delivery of packages or medicines, but also in areas such as energy or agriculture; In doing so, it hopes to position itself at the forefront of manned and unmanned air traffic safety.

Biomimetic drone swarms

Confirming evidence from expert Ulrike Franke that cutting-edge research is currently focused on swarms of intelligent drones, Drones magazine highlights two examples of “spectacular results”, obtained by copying biological principles and mechanisms, such as the behavior of bird swarms or shoals. of fish.
At the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), Enrica Soria, a doctoral student at the Intelligent Systems Laboratory, has developed a predictive control model that not only allows drones to react to other members of the swarm, but also to ” anticipate your own movements and predict those of your neighbors. In this scenario, the drones do not follow a predefined, computer-controlled route; Each drone that forms the swarm reacts individually to its environment according to the information it receives, and can therefore independently modify its trajectory. To do this, he is content to obey a few rules: keep a predefined minimum distance, fly at a certain speed, or follow a certain direction.
For its part, the Micro Air Vehicle Laboratory (MAVLab) at the University of Delft (Netherlands) has optimized the interaction between drones to perform a complex task, and particularly dangerous for humans: autonomous detection. factory. The operation is carried out in two stages: drones equipped with on-board sensors first act independently during exploratory navigation; then when a drone detects an increase in the concentration of gas in the air, this information is relayed to all the other drones in the swarm, all of which point in that direction, to surround and then finally locate the leak. The algorithm that directs them is based on the behavior and movement of flocks of birds; which means that each drone acts first according to its own perception, taking into account the measurements recorded by the entire swarm. Therefore, these smart drones act separately, but work together. This is what makes them effective.

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