Swarms of Drones Test New Dogfighting Skills

2017-04-25

Swarms of Drones Test New Dogfighting Skills
Aerial dogfighting began more than a century ago in the skies over Europe with propeller-driven fighter aircraft carried aloft on wings of fabric and wood. An event held recently in southern California could mark the beginning of a new chapter in this form of aerial combat.

In what may have been the first aerial encounter of its kind, researchers from the Georgia Tech Research Institute and Naval Postgraduate School recently pitted two swarms of autonomous aircraft against one another over a military test facility. While the friendly encounter may not have qualified as an old-fashioned dogfight, it provided the first example of a live engagement between two swarms of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), and allowed the two teams to demonstrate different combat tactics in flight.

“The ability to engage a swarm of threat UAVs with another autonomous swarm is an area of critical research for defense applications,” said Don Davis, division chief of the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Branch of the Georgia Tech Research Institute. This experiment demonstrated the advances made in collaborative autonomy and the ability of a team of unmanned vehicles to execute complex missions. This encounter will serve to advance and inform future efforts in developing autonomous vehicle capabilities.

Each team launched ten small propeller-driven Zephyr aircraft, though two of the aircraft experienced technical issues at launch and were unable to compete, resulting in a 10 versus 8 competition. Although the UAVs were physically identical, their computers used different autonomy logic, collaboration approaches, and communications software developed by the two institutions. GPS tracking allowed each aircraft to know the location of the others for this demonstration. In the future, this information will be provided by on-board cameras, radars, and other sensors and payloads.

Each aircraft used a single-board mission computer, and for this demonstration, an open-source autopilot maintained flight control. The aircraft also had Wi-Fi systems that allowed them to communicate with other aircraft and with a ground station.

Both teams were trying to solve the same problem of flying a large swarm in a meaningful mission, and we came up with solutions that were similar in some ways and different in others, said Charles Pippin, a senior research scientist at the Georgia Tech Research Institute. By comparing how well each approach worked in the air, we were able to compare strategies and tactics on platforms capable of the same flight dynamics.

The foam-wing aircraft couldn’t actually shoot at one another, so a ground computer determined when an aircraft would have been in a position to attack another aircraft. The swarm teams flew three different sorties to compare different algorithms. The event took place February 9, 2017 at Camp Roberts, a California National Guard facility in Monterey County, Calif.

The two institutions have been working together since 2015 on issues involving collaborative autonomy – the ability of autonomous vehicles to work together to accomplish a given task. The Georgia Tech researchers have been using aircraft known as Skywalkers that are similar to the Zephyrs used by the Naval Postgraduate School.

This was a very successful test, said Davis. It gave us, as far as I know, the first actual experimentation of flying two autonomous swarms of UAVs against one another with no human control, other than sending high level commands or sending a message to engage. We were really trying to understand how different autonomy tactics work against other autonomy tactics.

For each UAV, the autonomy algorithms were fully in control of the aircraft, but a safety pilot stood by to take control of any aircraft if necessary. The autopilots also had built in safety constraints, such as airspace boundaries and ranges.

Such aerial demonstrations are the third step in the process that the Georgia Tech team uses to test its autonomy systems, Pippin said. As a first step, tactics are rapidly tested on a simulator that runs 30 times faster than real time. Next, promising approaches are tested on a full software stack that includes a high-resolution simulation.

We run hardware-in-the-loop simulations where we have the actual algorithms running on the hardware we fly, said Pippin. The full software stack includes the autonomy logic, communications systems, collaboration algorithms and other software that is then inserted directly into the actual aircraft. In the third step, the tactics are flown on the aircraft on test ranges. In this case, we used the Zephrys and flew the swarms at Camp Roberts.

The Georgia Tech researchers are using machine learning to help their autonomy system optimize performance and recognize under which circumstances a particular tactic may be advantageous.

Right now, were more interested in the research questions about autonomous coordination among the vehicles and the tactical behavior of the groups of vehicles, Pippin explained. We are focusing our efforts on how these vehicles cooperate and want to understand what it means for them to operate as a team.

Dogfighting tactics have advanced dramatically since the World War I, but the advent of UAV swarms may bring a brand new set of challenges. Unmanned vehicles have freedom to dive, bank, and climb at rates human pilots cannot tolerate. But the real advantage may be in computing power that could track dozens of adversaries far more than any human pilot could do and develop new ways to address challenges.

Autonomous techniques using machine learning may identify new tactics that a human would never think of, added Davis. Humans tend to base their techniques on tactics that manned fighters have used in the past. These autonomous aircraft may invoke new strategies.

In addition those already named, the Georgia Tech Research Institute team that supported the swarm demonstration included Michael Day, Kevin DeMarco, David Jensen, Rick Presley, and Evan Hammac. Others supporting the project included Michael Matthews, Eric Squires, Rob Bever, Eric Trewhitt, and students Laura Strickland, Avery Leonard, Natalie Rakosky, and Jeremy Feltracco.





13 Takeaways from The White House Workshop

2016-08-08
13 Takeaways from The White House Workshop
The White House launched a new effort Tuesday to help increase the use of drones and showcased how government agencies have become a proving ground for a wide array of new drone concepts and technologies.

New Report: Drones in Public Safety and First Responder Operations

2016-07-24
New Report: Drones in Public Safety and First Responder Operations
It may not seem like it, but drones are still in their infancy and only proving themselves through the rigorous testing done privately, commercially, and by state and federal government agencies. Despite the tangible benefits that drones can provide, the public has mixed sentiments about their use by law enforcement, firefighting, and search & rescue operations.

Drone World Expo  Exclusive Interviews  Mark Bathrick

2016-07-14
Drone World Expo Exclusive Interviews Mark Bathrick
We wanted to find out more about the team behind Drone World Expo – what makes them tick, what motivates them and what are the secrets behind the success of the event. We interviewed Advisory Board member Mark L. Bathrick who directs a nationwide aviation services business for the U.S Department of the Interior (DOI) overseeing the safe operation of over 1,200 contracted and government-owned manned and unmanned aircraft across a wide range of business applications.

Rwanda Readies Life-Saving Drone Delivery System

2016-07-03
Rwanda Readies Life-Saving Drone Delivery System
This summer, small autonomous airplanes will begin carrying life-saving blood to 20 hospitals and healthcare centers across Western Rwanda, Africa, in one of the first-of-its-kind drone-based delivery demonstrations.

Tree-Planting Drones

2016-06-28
Tree-Planting Drones
Beaverton, Oregon-based drone startup DroneSeed created a drone with a device that fires seeds into the ground using compressed air in an effort to reforest the Pacific Northwest, and eventually forests around the world.

FAA Finalizes Rules for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems

2016-06-21
FAA Finalizes Rules for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems
Today, the Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration has finalized the firstoperational rules for routine commercial use of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS or “drones”), opening pathways towards fully integrating UAS into the nations airspace. These new regulations work to harness new innovations safely, to spur job growth, advance critical scientific research and save lives.

Embry-Riddle Consumer Guide to sUAS for Novices

2016-06-17
Embry-Riddle Consumer Guide to sUAS for Novices
A research team at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Worldwide Campus has created the first-ever comprehensive consumer guide to small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) for novice users–those individuals interested in purchasing their first small remote controlled or autonomous multi-rotor flying aircraft.

DroneDeploy Users Map 3,000,000 Acres

2016-06-09
DroneDeploy Users Map 3,000,000 Acres
At the Drones Data X Conference in San Francisco, Mike Winn, co-founder and CEO of DroneDeploy, announced in his keynote that our users had achieved a new industry milestone: 3,000,000 drone mapped acres across 120 countries.

Companies Team for UAS Inspection of Wind Turbines

2016-06-01
Companies Team for UAS Inspection of Wind Turbines
Two companies involved in aerial wind inspection services, HUVRdata, based in Austin, TX and EdgeData based in Grand Forks, ND, announced a collaboration to deliver a suite of wind industry data intelligence tools and credential processes to optimize the use of this technology within the wind industry.

DARPA Demo Day at the Pentagon

2016-05-15
DARPA Demo Day at the Pentagon
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency yesterday hosted DARPA Demo Day 2016 at the Pentagon, giving the Defense Department community an up-close look at the agency’s portfolio of innovative technologies and military systems.


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