The human imagination has embedded robot armies in popular culture. Think the Droid Army of Star Wars or the remote-controlled military Hammer Drones used to take revenge on Tony Stark in Ironman. And so often as fact follows fiction, development of swarm systems and strategies are becoming key to military applications of drones.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s OFFSET (Offensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics) program seeks to explore and develop breakthroughs in swarm technologies to this effect. As such, they have chosen Northrop Grumman Corporation, who are now seeking “sprinters” to participate in the creation and testing of swarm-based tactics using their open architecture test bed platform.
The OFFSET program aims to equip small-unit infantry forces with tiny unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) or small unmanned ground systems (UGSs) in swarms of 250 or more robots that support diverse missions in complex urban environments. OFFSET seeks to advance the integration of modern swarm tactics and leverage emerging technologies in swarm autonomy and human-swarm teaming.
But first, what exactly are the considerations and concerns OFFSET aims to explore? As Timothy Chung, Program Manager of the OFFSET Program explains, there is much more to understand than simply controlling large numbers of unmanned aerial or ground systems. There are questions of how complex each individual drone is – agent complexity – as well as how these large teams potentially interact with each other. Differing platforms and functionality of particular drones are also likely to have an effect upon swarm interaction, another aspect requires further exploration. Lastly, and a question that Chung sees as critical, is how humans interact in a swarm team environment, either as a commander or side-by-side with their peers.
“There’s some really deep and potentially profound questions on how we would leverage and use these types of swarm systems and that’s the question of how to interact with them. That’s a fantastic challenge and I think it’s one that we are wrestling with in the community and in the department, understanding what the capabilities these types of swarm systems can provide,” Chung outlines.
As part of the program, Northrop Grumman will release initial development tools and tutorials next month through their swarm tactics exchange portal, SwarmTex, and are seeking participants to create and test their own swarm-based tactics on the platform. Northrop Grumman is teamed with Intelligent Automation, Inc. (IAI) and the Interactive Computing Experiences Research Cluster, directed by Dr. Joseph LaViola at the University of Central Florida.
Northrop Grumman’s role as a swarm systems integrator involves the design, development and deployment of a swarm-system, open-based architecture for swarm technologies in both a game-based environment and physical test bed. The team’s key tasks are the production of tactics and technologies to test on the architecture. As such, they are responsible for engaging a wider development and user audience through rapid technology-development exercises known as “swarm sprints.”
DARPA plans to seek proposals from potential “sprinters” once in every six months approximately. It is looking at these potential sprinters to satisfy one of five thrust area namely: swarm tactics, swarm autonomy, human-swarm teaming, virtual environment and physical test bed. Participants from academia, small business and large corporations are invited to join in these swarm sprints. In collaboration with the integration team, sprinters will create and test their own novel swarm tactics within the test bed environment. The end of each sprint will coincide with live physical test experiments with DARPA, the systems integrator team and other sprinters.
“Cognitive autonomy has the potential to transform all defense and security systems. OFFSET will explore a variety of applications in relevant mission scenarios,” said Vern Boyle, vice president, advanced technologies, Northrop Grumman Mission Systems. “We are applying cutting-edge technologies in robotics, robot autonomy, machine learning and swarm control to ultimately enhance our contributions to the warfighter.” OFFSET Swarm Sprints aims at creating focused breakthroughs in swarm technologies to be integrated into the OFFSET Swarm Systems Architecture.
As Chung explains, the execution of the swarm system architecture will take place with a game-based environment and then embodied within a physical test bed. Are participants with an interest and experience in gaming and military strategy – having already developed skills and tactical knowledge in a similar environment – likely to be prime candidates as sprinters? You decide for yourself.