Military academy teams compete with drone swarms

U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, and U.S. Air Force academy teams compete in education-focused experiment to pave the way for future offensive and defensive swarm tactics for warfighters.

Small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other robots have become increasingly affordable, capable, and available to both the U.S. military and adversaries alike. Enabling UAVs and similar assets to perform useful tasks under human supervision—that is, carrying out swarm tactics in concert with human teammates—holds tremendous promise to extend the advantages U.S. warfighters have in field operations. A persistent challenge in achieving this capability, however, has been scalability: enabling one operator to oversee multiple robotic platforms and have them perform highly autonomous behaviors without direct teleoperation.

To help make effective swarm tactics a reality, DARPA created the Service Academies Swarm Challenge, a collaboration between the Agency and the three U.S. military Service academies—the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Naval Academy, and the U.S. Air Force Academy. An experiment at its heart, the research effort is designed to encourage students to develop innovative offensive and defensive tactics for swarms of small UAVs. Today the effort started its three-day Live-Fly Competition at Camp Roberts, a California Army National Guard post north of Paso Robles, Calif., which is hosting more than 40 Cadets and Midshipmen to demonstrate the highly autonomous swarm tactics they have developed since work started in September.

“In less than eight months, you have shown yourselves to be dedicated and talented participants in a complex and timely research effort,” Timothy Chung, the DARPA program manager leading the Swarm Challenge, told the teams. “DARPA is proud to have you—our future warfighters and Service leaders—participating in this endeavor to explore offensive and defensive swarm tactics. Now is your chance to show each other, DARPA, and our invited Defense Department guests your precedent-setting work toward an important goal: helping future U.S. forces maintain superiority in tomorrow’s technological and mission environments.”

Ranging in size from 11 to 21 students, the teams bring cross-disciplinary expertise in diverse technical and nontechnical fields, from computer science, robotics, and systems engineering to military strategy and operations. The students also bring fresh insights that DARPA and the U.S. military can learn from—and potentially expand upon—to enhance the tactical effectiveness of swarm systems.

DARPA provided all the hardware, much of the software, and a lot of know-how to get the teams started. The Agency also developed new support infrastructure to enable the teams to practice and compete in a virtual environment in preparation for this week. DARPA initially provided some example swarm tactics and the teams have since designed a number of their own to debut at the Live-Fly Competition.

The Service Academies Swarm Challenge is testing cutting-edge swarm tactics through a time-honored game that is all about tactics: Capture the Flag. Two teams at a time play inside the Battle Cube, a cubic airspace 500 meters on a side, 78 meters above the ground. Each team has been given 20 fixed-wing UAVs and 20 quad-rotor UAVs and, under the rules of play, can field a mixed fleet of up to 25 UAVs for each of two 30-minute battle rounds. Each team protects its “flag” (a large, inflatable ground target) while trying to score the most points before time runs out.

Teams seek to score the most points in the following ways:

Air-to-air “tags” by using a simulated (virtual) weapon to hit a sensor on an opponent’s UAV in flight
Air-to-ground “tags” by physically landing a UAV on the opponent’s “flag” located on the ground
Accomplishments in swarm logistics by launching as many UAVs as quickly as possible and keeping them aloft as long as possible

DARPA’s interest in developing breakthrough swarm capabilities for national security extends beyond the Swarm Challenge to a number of current programs exploring autonomy, communications, and other technologies, including:

Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment (CODE)
Fast Lightweight Autonomy (FLA)
OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET)

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