Army Tests Quadcopter Swarm-Launching Uncrewed Ground Vehicle For Clearing Mines

Groups of drones autonomously launching from uncrewed ground vehicles could well be part of the U.S. Army’s future toolkit for mine-clearing operations. That’s exactly what the video below showcases, in which 20 drones can be seen flying off from an uncrewed ground vehicle in just 13 seconds.

The video emerged on social media recently, but it isn’t clear where or when it was taken. It does however bear the logo of the Army’s Sandhills Project, also known as the Future Breaching Experiment.

Work on the project has been spearheaded by Fort Liberty’s 20th Engineer Brigade, part of the XVIII Airborne Corps, and other service members, industry partners, and independent research and development institutes. The first Sandhills event took place last December at Fort Liberty in North Carolina, during which current robotic breaching capabilities were experimented with in simulated conditions. A second Sandhills event was conducted earlier this year at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) and Fort Johnson, Louisiana, building on lessons learned during the first exercise.

The tests showcased various breaching methods currently at the Army’s disposal, including its ability to remotely employ and detonate a live Mine Clearing Line Charge (MICLIC) and remotely operate Caterpillar D3 and D7 dozers to clear obstacles like concrete tank traps, among other capabilities.

In the video, we see one of General Dynamics Land Systems’ S-METs, a type of autonomous uncrewed ground vehicle which you can read more about here, sitting parked in a training area clearly designed to represent some sort of fortified enemy position, featuring barbed wire and concrete tank traps. The S-MET itself is kitted out with supports for four towers of quadcopters, which are neatly stacked in groups of five (20 in total). Some of the drones begin launching forward, and can be seen headed groundward in the direction of what are presumably mock anti-tank mines in the near distance.

Unknown author via X

As the title of the video suggests, the drones are designed to neutralize anti-tank mines. It is not exactly clear how the combination of S-METs and quadcopters for mine-clearing would work operationally. We do know that the Army has experimented with explosive-laden drones to physically set off mines — either by triggering their fuzes or causing a sympathetic detonation — during the second Sandhills training event earlier this year. Quadcopters were used to deliver explosives in targeting live, Soviet-era TM-62 anti-tank blast mines during both daytime and nighttime exercises, footage of which can be seen below. 

It should also be noted that drone technology has also been used to locate mines during the Sandhills Breaching Project as well. As part of the first exercise, personnel from the Army’s Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) and Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Cyber, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C5ISR) Center used a Skyraider UAV to identify surface-laid mines. This was achieved via LIDAR and electro-optical (EO) sensors. 

Further clues as to how the Army likely envisions the quadcopter-delivered drones being used for mine clearing can be gleaned towards the end of “The Sandhills Project 2.0” training event video above. In it, the service stipulates that it aims to integrate “AI [artificial intelligence]-supported drone swarms to generate new forms of mass that enable success in the ever-increasing complexity of breaching” during a third round of testing.

The potential benefits this could offer for mine clearing and breaching in future conflicts are significant. In terms of the former, if a suitable “mass” of explosive-laden drones could be built up, they could quickly and easily speed through dense minefields, selecting targets autonomously or detonating is patterns based on their explosive radius, clearing the way ahead for units behind. Mine clearing is a slow and laborious task, putting humans involved at significant risk, so having a method of neutralizing them speedily has obvious life-saving implications.

They could also be used to target other obstacles obstructing troop movements autonomously en masse, such as concrete tank traps. Using them against enemy troops is also a possibility, if the opportunity presents itself.

Still from “The Sandhills Project 2.0” training event video showing drone swarms engaging targets. U.S. Army

There is could also be an attractive cost-benefit ratio to using swarms of lower-end drones to neutralize mines and other obstacles rather than targeting them individually with individual drones. It is also very likely that adding lower-end drone swarms to the Army’s battlefield breaching toolkit would help preserve expensive and prized breaching vehicles in future conflicts.

The Army’s interest in drone swarming as part of the Sandhills Project — and the wider initiative more broadly — comes in response to what the service has observed amid ongoing present conflicts, it notes. In simulating “realistic and challenging obstacles replicating real-world challenges observed abroad,” the Sandhills events have looked to test how current breaching capabilities would stand up to those conditions.

“Current conflicts indicate that U.S. forces may experience extensive obstacle effort several kilometers in depth on future battlefields,” the 20th Engineer Brigade’s first YouTube video on the Sandhills Breaching Project notes. “Future breaching requires greater speed and flexibility to rapidly maneuver through obstacles, leveraging lower-cost equipment able to mass in large quantities.” Alongside negotiating complex obstacles in depth, the Army also envisions that personnel will have to maneuver through dispersed defense networks within dense urban terrain in future wars.

Some of the obstacles U.S. military personnel will likely encounter on future battlefields. U.S. Army

As the video itself highlights, the war in Ukraine has first and foremost led the Army to rehearse for those conditions. As we’ve seen, Ukrainian forces have had to negotiate hundreds of miles of dense obstacles built up by Russian forces on the battlefield, inclusive of mines, concrete tank traps, barbed wire, and trench lines. This was illustrated clearly during the counteroffensive last year, which saw Ukrainian troops bogged down because of those kinds of obstacles.

It is particularly noteworthy that the Army has looked to drones for providing breaching solutions to problems envisaged in future conflicts, given the hugely significant role drones of various tiers and capabilities have played during the war in Ukraine. While the utility, and threat, of drones are by no means new, the conflict has brought the value of drones to the forefront. This is something the U.S. military has been lagging behind on; particularly when it comes to acquiring first-person view (FPV)-types and other kinds of kamikaze drones which have proved highly valuable during the war in Ukraine.

As we’ve posited recently, the next terrifying step in drone warfare will see those sorts of drones being able to pick targets autonomously with the help of AI. Adding swarming capabilities on top of this, which the Army appears to be experimenting with now, will only add to the lethality of lower-end drones.

Given the speed with which lower-end drone warfare has evolved in recent years, particularly since the onset of the war in Ukraine, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Army is experimenting with how it envisions smaller drones could be used in the future. However, given the minelaying density seen during the war, it remains open to question whether a sufficient “mass” of small, AI-enabled drones could be networked together in swarms to take widespread mine-clearing duties in a future conflict. Still, they could be very an highly useful tool for more limited, pointed tactical operations.

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Oliver Parken

Associate Editor

Oli’s background is in the cultural and military history of twentieth-century Britain. Before joining The War Zone team in early in 2022, he was Assistant Lecturer at the University of Kent's Center for the History of War, Media and Society in the U.K., where he completed his PhD in 2021. Alongside his contributions to The War Zone's military history catalog, he also covers contemporary topics and breaking news.