Beyond catch and release

DARPA programs underway to deploy, direct, and recover drone swarms
Instead of relying on a few multi-million dollar unmanned aircraft, future warfighters may use swarms of hundreds of low-cost unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to accomplish missions. In the face of air defenses, a swarm of UAVs might prove difficult to destroy or disable depending on the number of UAVs deployed.

Accordingly, the UAV swarm approach departs from the traditional methodology of one pilot remotely controlling an individual UAV to communicating mission objectives to the swarm as a whole unit. The development of such control methods is being addressed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) program. The goals of OFFSET are to develop the tools to rapidly generate swarm tactics, evaluate the effectiveness of those tactics, and then transition them into the field.  

Under the OFFSET program, BBN Technologies (a subsidiary of Raytheon) is developing direct and control solutions for swarms of small, autonomous air, and ground vehicles. The approach involves a visual interface that allows "drag and drop" creation and manipulation of tactics and a game-based simulator to evaluate those tactics. Additionally, BBN Technologies will be using a physical UAV swarm testbed to perform live tactic evaluation.

"Operators use speech or gestures to control the swarm. This is a tremendous advantage during operations," said Shane Clark, Ph.D. and principal investigator on the program. "The system provides sensor feeds and mission status indicators for complete situational awareness."

The programming software and simulation environment are flexible, scalable in order to coordinate aircraft behaviors in teams composed of different vehicle types that use a mix of various sensors.
DARPA is inviting additional organizations to participate in OFFSET as "sprinters" through an open broad agency announcement. These sprinters are encouraged to create their own novel swarm tactics and the Raytheon BBN team will work with them to evaluate the tactics in simulation with the potential for fielding them in live trials.

DARPA intends to solicit proposals from potential sprint participants at six-month intervals and has identified five key technology “thrusts” or focuses to advance with the sprint collaborations: Swarm Tactics, Swarm Autonomy, Human-Swarm Team, Virtual Environment, and Physical Testbed.

Each sprint would wrap up with physical and virtual capability-based experiments to test and evaluate the focus of the particular OFFSET thrust effort. Currently, a second “swarm sprint” event is being organized which will focus on improving autonomy.

DARPA has been particularly interested in small infantry units operating swarms in demanding urban environments. The second sprint will involve a test mission of 15 to 30 minutes to isolate an urban objective within a two block area using a swarm of 50 air and ground robots. The OFFSET program seeks to achieve more than one hundred swarm tactics. Such tactics would improve force protection, firepower, precision effects, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. The program plans to include interactions with anticipated end users in the U. S. Army and Marine Corps to share successfully demonstrated swam tactics.

While BNN Technologies and DARPA sprinters pursue swarm behavior, the agency has continued to make strides in managing UAV swarm deployment and recovery with its Gremlins program. DARPA recently selected Dynetics, Inc to complete Phase 3 of the program (which will take place over a 21-month schedule).

The Gremlins program was established to accelerate the ability to perform aerial launch and recovery of volley quantities of low-cost, reusable UAVs—thus enabling a significant expansion of distributed architectures for airborne operations.

The Dynetics solution involves deploying a towed, stabilized capture device below and away from the Lockheed C-130; docking  much like an airborne refueling operation. Once docked and powered off, the capture device is mechanically secured and stowed inside the C-130. Potential technologies adaptations include under-wing and bay recovery by other cargo aircraft.

"The unmanned air vehicles utilized in these future operations will carry a variety of different sensors and other payloads, working together to manage and conduct complex, highly-adaptive operations in contested environments," said Tim Keeter, Dynetics deputy program manager and chief engineer. "When they complete their mission, they return to airborne manned platforms to be recovered to a forward operating base where they can be quickly refurbished and put back into the fight. The potential to overwhelm an adversary continuously with multiple volleys is tremendous."

The Gremlins system will significantly impact both contested environments and low-intensity, routine operations. The ability for a single, manned aircraft to stand off from danger yet manage multiple air vehicles equipped with sensors and other payloads lends itself well to enhanced support of tactical strike, ISR, and close air support missions.

While OFFSET focuses on swarm capabilities for ground support, the potential for combined use of these two technology developments is significant and far-reaching. Continue reading »