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U.S. drones fly with virtual impunity over Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, firing deadly missiles at targets with little concern the highly effective aircraft will be shot down.

Such freedom will eventually disappear, Pentagon planners believe, as missions involve more of the pilotless aircraft flying into more dangerous and contested environments.

That's behind a push by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop autonomous systems to allow multiple drones to communicate with each other as they fly more dangerous missions.

The program, known as Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment (CODE), is drawing contractors to a meeting in early April to discuss possible approaches to enabling drones to work together, DARPA records show. Part of the meeting will be classified as officials spell out their specific needs.

Unmanned aircraft have had 25 years of success, DARPA records show, but "most of the current systems are not well matched to the needs of future conflicts, which DARPA anticipates being much less permissive, very dynamic, and characterized by a higher level of threats, contested electromagnetic spectrum, and re-locatable targets."

DARPA budget plans released this month show a steady increase in the money the military will spend on their development. In the upcoming 2015 fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, DARPA plans to spend $15 million developing CODE, up from $8 million this year.

DARPA has identified four critical technology areas for CODE:

• Autonomy for a single drones, including autonomous management in routine and abnormal conditions.

• The connections between human controllers and the system, which will enable "a single mission commander to maintain situational awareness" and direct multiple platforms at the same time.

• Team-level autonomy, which will "enable the definition of a collaborative action plan that leverages the strength of each team member."

• Open architecture that will allow various groups to collaborate with each other more easily.

Drones of all variations remain a top military priority. Since October, DARPA and other agencies have stepped up their work on underwater drones, those that can be stored in underwater pods and be remotely activated and cheaper drones that operate independently.

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