The science fiction-sounding goal: Put an autonomous robot swarm of 250 or more drones under the control of light infantry soldiers or Marines to do complex tasks on the urban battlefield.
Competitors are now tackling that goal in a multi-stage event announced late last year by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Events called Sprinters are intended to develop “offensive swarm-enabled tactics” for these emerging technologies.
Swarm drone technology already exists. In 2016, the Defense Department successfully tested micro-drone swarms at China Lake, California. They dropped 103 Perdix drones from three F/A-18 Super Hornet jet fighters.
The drones had a 6.5-inch body and 11.8-inch wing span and weighed less 10.23 ounces, or as much as full can of soda.
The autonomous micro-drones completed multiple missions, including adaptive formation flying, collective decision-making and self-healing, according to the Defense Department release.
A video display shows the cluster or swarm find a target, circle within seconds and then converge on the target simultaneously and circle it at a 100-meter radius orbit.
China Electronics Technology, a China-owned company, provided a demonstration in June that individually launched 119 drones with a slingshot-like device. The drones then gathered in a formation and flew patterns around nearby mountains, according to the Financial Times.
One tactical application would be to use the relatively inexpensive drones, purchased online, to swarm aircraft, which do not currently have effective countermeasures for such an attack.
Vasily Kashin, an expert on China’s military at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, told the Financial Times that both China and the United States are racing to develop effective algorithms to use swarm technology in the air, on land and at sea.
The 2016 Defense Department test was focused on low-altitude intel missions.
The new DARPA project will combine air and ground robots in a more complex environment – urban spaces.
Phase 1 of the project is led by Raytheon BBN Technologies and Northrop Grumman Corporation. The two companies will supply teams that will help design, develop and deploy open architecture for swarm technology in both virtual and physical environments, according to the DARPA website.
The teams will experiment with the technology to make swarm capabilities real. Other competitors will then use the architecture to focus on one of five areas – swarm tactics, swarm autonomy, human-swarm teaming, virtual environment and physical testbed.
Each of the areas will be the focus in six-month intervals, officials said. At the end of each event there will be a test and integration assessment in both virtual and physical experiments.
There will also be ad hoc Sprinters at times between the scheduled six-month competitions.
The first sprint, which accepted applications through last November, will look at generating swarm tactics for a mixed swarm of 50 air and ground robots to “isolate an urban objective within an area of two square city blocks over a mission duration of 15 to 30 minutes.”
The robots must perform reconnaissance, identify ingress and egress points and establish a perimeter around an area of operation.
“The swarm sprints are empirical experiments designed to accelerate our understanding of what swarms can do in urban environments,” said Timothy Chung, program manager in the agency’s Tactical Technology Office. “By having swarm sprints at regular intervals, we’re able to ensure that we’re keeping up with the latest technologies — and are in fact helping inform and advance those technologies — to better suit the needs of the OFFSET program.”
Chung said the agency is open to many competitors.
“Given the wide range of capabilities that we’re interested in, we’re looking for wherever those innovative solutions are going to come from, whether they be small businesses, academic institutions or large corporations.”
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.