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Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) swarms provide a wide variety of useful capabilities to today’s militaries, but one issue that remains is how to get them to the deployment zone. A possible solution comes from US Air Force’s experiments in unleashing swarms of drones from airborne F-16s.

In a recent test in Alaska, a USAF F-16 travelling at over 690 km/h launched a swarm of Perdix miniature drones from its flare dispenser. Each Perdix is about the size of an iPhone 6 and weighs less than half a kilogramme. The tiny drones are launched in small canisters equipped with parachutes that allow the drones to spread their wings and “take-off” mid-air.

The Perdix were developed by students at MIT. Each unit is 3D printed from Kevlar and carbon fibre and is capable of communicating with the entire swarm in flight.

“Just imagine an airplane going in against an IAD (Integrated Air Defense) system and dropping 30 of these out that form into a network and do crazy things,” deputy defense secretary Bob Work told “We’ve tested this. We’ve tested it and it works.”

While the small UAVs were developed by MIT students, they were brought to their current capability level by the Pentagon’s secretive Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) who came up with a method of launching them from aeroplanes.

“We don’t have to develop new planes,” says SCO team leader William Roper. “We don’t have to develop fundamentally new weapons. But we have to work the integration and the concept of operation. And then you have a completely new capability, but you don’t have to wait long at all.”

The Pentagon is keeping mum about what it intends to do with the little drone swarms, but they’re likely to be used as part of surveillance operations, among other missions. If operating costs remain low, they are likely to become nearly ubiquitous in F-16s.