Preview: The Coming Swarm

The Pentagon is starting to field autonomous drones that can make decisions on their own -- faster and, in some cases, better than humans

Preview: The Coming Swarm
Preview: The Coming Swarm 01:48

David Martin got a look at the battlefield of the future when he witnessed a Pentagon test of a swarm of 100 autonomous drones, making decisions on their own faster than humans can think. The drones, which can be used for everything from confusing enemy air defenses to hunting down terrorists, could be fielded as early as this year. Martin’s report can be seen on the next edition of 60 Minutes, Sunday, Jan. 8 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.

The Pentagon’s Dr. Will Roper explained to Martin that the small, autonomous drones, called Perdix, are given a mission by humans but figure out how to carry it out on their own by communicating with each other many times a second.  “We’ve given them a mission at this point and that mission is as a team go fly down the road,” Roper says. “So they allocate that amongst all the individual Perdix. . . It’s faster than a human would sort it out.”

60 Minutes used special high-speed cameras to capture the test of the Perdix which were ejected from three F-18 fighter jets traveling at almost the speed of sound.  Roper and Martin waited to see if the tiny Perdix -- small enough to hold in the palm of your hand -- would survive their violent release  “That’s 100 swarm.  There they are.” Roper exulted.  “A little piece of the future.”

Martin also witnessed the testing of drones powered by artificial intelligence which enables them to learn -  a ship with no crew that could search for submarines, a ground robot that could be sent into a village to search for a terrorist using facial recognition technology.   The coming of autonomous systems to the battlefield raises “the question of whether or not you allow a machine to take a human life without the intervention of a human,” one general told Martin.

Roper, head of a once secret Pentagon office charged with developing game changing technologies, told Martin he agrees with defense experts who have said that autonomy is the biggest thing in military technology since nuclear weapons. “If what we mean is biggest thing is something that’s going to change everything, I think autonomy is going to change everything.”