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Oxford’s weapons research revealed

In 2017, with the Saudi-led blockade and bombing of Yemen at its height, a Pembroke Professor travelled to the UAE. He was there to advise the country's military leaders and Prime Minister, a dictator accused of war crimes by the UN, on military strategy.


The development of military drones over the past fifteen years has changed the face of warfare, enabling America’s so-called ‘Forever War’ – long-running undeclared conflicts in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Nigeria.

Advances in artificial intelligence now threaten to advance the Forever War into new territory: the development of fully autonomous weapons systems, which could select, identify and attack targets without human intervention. A related frontier is that of the swarm: autonomous, interacting fleets of tens, hundreds or even thousands of drones.

Although the UK claims to oppose the construction of autonomous weapons systems, it has consistently declined to support moves at the UN to block them. The Ministry of Defence launched the £3 million ‘Many Drones Make Light Work’ competition in 2016, injecting a further £2.5 million into the programme this March. This programme aims to develop “militarily useful swarming UAS [drones]” for use in “complex urban and littoral environments.”

A recent report found that a large number of UK universities, including Oxford, were complicit in the development of autonomous drone technology.

In the early hours of the 14th September 2019, two Saudi Aramco oil facilities came under heavy bombardment. Although no one was killed, Saudi Arabia’s oil production was cut in half, leading to a substantial spike in global prices.

It wasn’t immediately clear what had happened, or how it had occurred under the nose of Saudi Arabia’s American-made air defence system. It later transpired that a swarm of small, cheap drones was likely behind the attack – the first known offensive use of a coordinated drone swarm.

Oxford researchers have conducted extensive research for the arms industry into the possibility of creating autonomous swarms of drones.

Much of this research was part of the ORCHID project. Although ORCHID’s research was limited to civilian uses such as disaster response, the programme, which was partly based at Oxford University, enjoyed funding from BAE Systems – a major investor in military drone technology.

One US Air Force researcher recently told Air Force Magazine that the UK Ministry of Defence had found it easier to collaborate on drone swarm research with universities “who may not want to play on a military mission” if the research objective is framed as humanitarian.

As far back as 2008, BAE Systems, Thales and Boeing, among others, collaborated on a project called SUAAVE (Sensing Unmanned Autonomous Aerial Vehicles) at the Computer Science Department. With over £480,000 in funding, the focus of the project was “on the creation and control of swarms of helicopter UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) that operate autonomously,” with “a wide variety of applications in both civil and military domains.” A key finding reported by the team was new a target-tracking algorithm.

SUAAVE was succeeded by two separate drone swarm-related projects at the Departments of Engineering and Computer Science, worth over £1 million in total and both funded by the Ministry of Defence and BAE Systems.

BAE Systems and QinetiQ are both partners in Oxford’s £4.5 million EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Autonomous Intelligent Machines and Systems, whose researchers won an award last year for their work which “could soon make it possible to deploy learning multi-agent systems,” including drone swarms, “in the real world.”

Earlier this year, one of the main firms developing software for drone swarm management, Accelerated Dynamics (ADx), was acquired by an Oxford University spin-off firm, Animal Dynamics. Animal Dynamics was spun out of a £1.1 million research project, based at the Department of Zoology and in partnership with the US Air Force, to develop micro-drone technology based on the observed mechanics of animal movement. The Ministry of Defence subsequently supported the project with two DPhil positions.

From 2013 to 2015, the Department of Engineering was home to Project Hyperion, led by Professor Dominic O’Brien. This programme, co-funded by Airbus and the UK government, aimed to develop drones which could communicate with ground-stations via laser, which is both more secure and more powerful than existing radio technology.

According to an Airbus researcher, the project aimed to address “the requirements of UAV operators, who need real-time access to increasing amounts of mission data for surveillance, agriculture and disaster relief.”

The technology – allowing longer flight times and simpler, cheaper ground-stations – would likely be of use to Airbus’ ongoing development of the MALE RPAS, an armed long-endurance drone which is “designed to become one of the main pillars of any future combat air system” in Europe, including surveillance over European cities.

Neither Oxford University nor Airbus would confirm whether this technology would be applied to the MALE RPAS. Hyperion was succeeded by ‘Q-DOS light’, also led by Professor O’Brien in partnership with Airbus Defence and Space, which aimed to ensure that the transmission of the laser data was secure.

Nuclear weapons

The UK’s nuclear warheads are produced by the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston and stationed on Vanguard-class nuclear submarines, built and maintained by Rolls Royce and BAE Systems in Scotland.

Oxford researchers may have been assisting Rolls Royce and BAE in developing the next generation of nuclear-armed submarine, the Dreadnought class. A £669,000 research project at the Engineering Department, led by Professor Nikica Petrinic in collaboration with Rolls Royce and BAE, examined the possibility for using novel materials to reduce corrosion on the “next generation of submarines” and used their findings to advise British and American submarine manufacturers.

Another project, also led by Professor Petrinic, led to the research team establishing an ongoing with Rolls Royce “in support of the development of the next generation of submarines.”

Since nuclear tests were banned in 1998, the UK has relied on computer simulations to develop and test its nuclear stockpile. Researchers based at Oxford received at least £49,709 from AWE for follow-up research on a method of future-proofing the software they use to conduct highly complex computational simulations for hydrodynamics.

AWE’s hydrodynamic simulations aim to model the behaviour of nuclear warheads on impact, when the force of the explosion causes them to act like a liquid, providing what AWE describes as “confidence in the safety and performance of the warheads.”

A separate project worth over £500,000 looked into how materials respond under extreme compression. The researcher stated: “The development of an x-ray diffraction platform that could be utilised on this laser would have considerable impact on AWE’s research programmes. Such work underpins the UK’s nuclear deterrent.”

Another area of research at Oxford is gravimeters, quantum meters for measuring slight variations in gravity. This technology could theoretically be used to detect nuclear submarines from above, regardless of their depth or design, and thereby render the Trident programme obsolete.

A team at the Department of Physics, in collaboration with QinetiQ, were until recently working on the creation of a gradimeter. A different team at the Department of Physics is currently researching how to produce a reliable source of cold atoms, essential to cold atom gravimeters. The project is partly supported by the Ministry of Defence, and has previously received graduate students from the National University of Defence Technology, an institution under the direct command of the Chinese military.

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