n armed ground tank robot called the Vikhr, or "Whirlwind," on display at the 2nd annual Military & Scientific Robotic Conference at Patriot Center in Moscow.

n armed ground tank robot called the Vikhr, or "Whirlwind," on display at the 2nd annual Military & Scientific Robotic Conference at Patriot Center in Moscow. SPUTNIK

Russia Joins US in Race to Field Gun-Launched Swarmbots

A pair of Russian programs hastens the day that drone swarms may meet each other over the battlefield.

Russian arms makers have announced efforts to shoot multiple small drones in rapid succession from small arms and cannons, hastening a day when Russian and U.S. drone swarms may meet each other over the skies of distant battlefield.

On Thursday, Russian news site Tass revealed a reconnaissance drone that a soldier would shoot from “a hand-held grenade launcher.”

“The drone is prepared for launch within a period of 5 seconds to 3 minutes, depending on the time of preparing a flight program in cases when other similar drones require much more time for accomplishing the mission,” Tass reported.

The unveil was part of a military robotics show that brought together more than 30 Russian defense companies and 500 participants.

Other robots on display included an armed ground tank robot called the Vikhr, or "Whirlwind," which has been recently updated with a 30 mm gun and optional rockets. The Whirlwind works with a small quadcopter and a couple of toaster-sized bots that perform resupply and maintenance. A crew can control it remotely from a kilometer away or it can run semi-autonomously according to Tass.

The conference announcement follows a February announcement that Russian arms manufacturers had worked up a way to launch drones from a much larger Smerch multiple launch rocket system.

"The idea to create an unmanned air vehicle enclosed in a Smerch missile warhead is not new. We have carried out technological research and produced it at our own expense, we are not hiding it. We hope customers will start streaming in soon," Nikolai Makarovets, chief designer of the Splav research and manufacturing association, told Tass.

Russian-backed forces in Ukraine have made liberal use of reconnaissance drones to target enemy positions, allowing artillery fire to arrive within minutes . The ability to deploy drone swarms would aid in that effort.

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The Pentagon is pursuing similar technology through a program called Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology, or LOCUST , announced in 2015. Its goal is to fire 30 synchronized, foldable drones out of a tube launcher — basically, a cannon.

“How do you get a lot of birds up in the air quickly? That drives you to a canister launch configuration,” Mastroianni, who runs the LOCUST program at the Office of Naval Research, said a few years ago . “I’m platform-agnostic. If you’re looking at a swarm of 20 or 30, there’s no reason why you couldn’t swarm Predators,” he said. “But when you get into something like the Predator, they want them back. They’re not going to be one-way missions.”

LOCUST passed an important developmental milestone in September, when program officials successfully launched a quick succession of 30 Raytheon Coyote demonstration drones , which organized themselves into formation and conducted some group maneuvers, the program officer said.

That may the last we hear about LOCUST for a while; the program has since been classified, an Office of Naval Research spokesman said.