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Cutting edge innovations enable record number of drones and advanced swarm behaviors such as collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying, and self-healing.

The United States military successfully launched what it’s calling “one of the world’s largest micro-drone swarms” in October. The Department of Defense, the Strategic Capabilities Office, partnering with Naval Air Systems Command, successfully demonstration consisted of 103 Perdix drones launched from three F/A-18 Super Hornets. The micro-drones demonstrated advanced swarm behaviors such as collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying, and self-healing.

“Due to the complex nature of combat, Perdix are not pre-programmed synchronized individuals, they are a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature,” said SCO Director William Roper. “Because every Perdix communicates and collaborates with every other Perdix, the swarm has no leader and can gracefully adapt to drones entering or exiting the team.”

“I congratulate the Strategic Capabilities Office for this successful demonstration,” said Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, who created SCO in 2012. “This is the kind of cutting-edge innovation that will keep us a step ahead of our adversaries. This demonstration will advance our development of autonomous systems.”

The demonstration is one of the first examples of the Pentagon using teams of small, inexpensive, autonomous systems to perform missions once achieved only by large, expensive ones. Roper stressed the department’s conception of the future battle network is one where humans will always be in the loop. Machines and the autonomous systems being developed by the DoD, such as the micro-drones, will empower humans to make better decisions faster.

As SCO works with the military Services to transition Perdix into existing programs of record, it is also partnering with the Defense Industrial Unit-Experimental, or DIUx, to find companies capable of accurately replicating Perdix using the MIT Lincoln Laboratory design. Its goal is to produce Perdix at scale in batches of up to 1,000.

Earlier state controlled China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC) created record by demonstrating swarm of 67 drones flying together, at the 11th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition. The drones can fly in group to destroy targets. They can also been assigned with different missions if needed. Besides, the swarming drone system also has better survivability since the whole system will not been significantly affected by the loss of a small amount of drones.

Recent successful demonstrations that Swarm challenges are being overcome by advances in computer science, artificial intelligence, cognitive and behavioral sciences, machine training and learning, and communication technologies. Collaborative autonomy is an extension of autonomy that enables a team of unmanned systems to coordinate their activities to achieve common goals without human oversight. Autonomously coordinated unmanned systems may be capable of faster, more synchronized fire and maneuver than would be possible with remotely controlled assets. This trend will lead to a shift toward strategic decision making for a team of vehicles and away from direct control of any single vehicle.

Challenges for Swarm robotics

Many of applications like improved disaster response and unique vehicles for transportation are still stuck in the lab or still in concept phase. The main factors holding back swarming robotics are the stigma of widespread robots, the lack of reliable communications, readily available distributed algorithms, and the cost of individual robots. However, these are quickly changing and the concerns can be mitigated by designing safeguards into these complex systems, writes Jason Ernst, PhD Candidate, CS, is the CTO of Redtree Robotics. The sensors, cameras, motors and other parts that make the robot work are all expensive, however the scale of mobile phones have made some of the key sensors like accelerometer, gyroscope, GPS have become insanely cheap.

The robots need to exchange positions, direction of motion, pitch, yaw, roll, and they may need to also keep track of information about the task they are solving, there is a lack of coordinated algorithms readily available writes Jason.

In turn, holding back the development of coordinated algorithms is the lack of reliable, robust communications between robots. For swarm to become a reality, robots must communicate with each other directly, in addition to communicating to the Internet. This means local meshes must be setup between robots. The communications stack must be smart enough to determine if it should use local meshes or external Internet communications to reach other robots or the Internet.

In addition, since the information being exchanged between robots may affect critical systems and prevent crashes and other dangerous behavior, the communications should use either redundant technology (several Wi-Fi cards, or a variety of communication tech – satellite, Bluetooth, UHF/VHF, 4G/LTE, etc.

The last, and perhaps most troublesome, is the fear people have of the robot revolution, Many people in manufacturing are afraid of losing their jobs, and people are becoming downright afraid to even imagine a future with robots as core enabling technology.

The drones for military missions face additional challenges

Originally designed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineering students, the Perdix drone was modified for military use by the scientists and engineers of MIT Lincoln Laboratory starting in 2013. Drawing inspiration from the commercial smartphone industry, Perdix software and hardware has been continually updated in successive design generations. Now in its sixth generation, October’s test confirmed the reliability of the current all-commercial-component design under potential deployment conditions—speeds of Mach 0.6, temperatures of minus 10 degrees Celsius, and large shocks—encountered during ejection from fighter flare dispensers.

“The key is a modular UAV that can easily accept different payloads depending on which missions are desired and can be produced cheaply enough that they are one-way.” Adaptability is important because different payloads are required for different types of mission: the drones may be equipped with video cameras or other sensors, jammers to interfere with enemy radar or they might carry explosive warheads for kamikaze-style attacks. In defensive mode, a swarm can form a protective cordon against fleets of fast boats like those used by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The swarm might carry out high-risk reconnaissance missions, collecting imagery or other data from targets too well-defended for a Predator drone or a manned aircraft to approach, explains Lee Mastroianni, project manager of LOCUST.

Managing the swarm requires a new approach to control: instead of remotely piloting a single drone, the operator manages the swarm. He describes how the operator’s interface will handle “aggregation” and “disaggregation”, his terms for drones joining or leaving the swarm. A single drone might detach to get a closer look at a target, and return or carry out an attack.

Battery life is a big issue for small drones. But a swarm can have a “hive”, a base station where individual drones return for recharging while the rest continue their mission. To the operator, unaware of charging going on in the background, the swarm’s endurance is unlimited. This approach is relatively easy for fixed bases; Stephen Crampton, CEO of Swarm Systems says a mobile hive for soldiers on patrol is more challenging.

Mastroianni says the biggest challenges for the swarm are not technical, but more based on perception: safety policies treat unmanned aircraft as if they are manned, meaning that they are highly regulated. “Establishing trust in autonomous UAV systems is not only the biggest challenge, but a major objective,” Mastroianni says. Swarms at sea are a start, but the real impact will be when they engage in land warfare. Stephen Crampton, CEO of Swarm Systems, says the cluttered environment where drones have to avoid trees, buildings and power lines is far more difficult than open water. Autonomous sense-and-avoid for small drones is still in its early stages, but as processors get more powerful, it is becoming more reliable. Crampton says that other advances such as deep learning and neural networks also offer potential solutions and the technology is advancing rapidly.

Textron’s Synturian family of multi-vehicle control and collaboration technologies

The Synturian family of products includes two main product lines: Synturian Control and Synturian Remote. Synturian Control is a multi-platform, multi-vehicle, multi-domain control system that enhances collaboration and dissemination of information. Synturian Remote includes mobile, network-strengthened tools that enhance situational awareness through timely information and collaboration.

The Textron systems can control multiple aircraft, ground and maritime and vessels or vehicles at a onetime including Army Shadow, Hunter and Gray Eagle Unmanned Aerial System (UAS). The Textron systems is compliant with NATO standardization agreement (STANAG) 4586 and configurable with the S-788, S-280 and Conex shelters as well as shipboard environments.

The Textron control station features are command and control, payload control and weapons control capabilities. Scalable, modular and intuitive, the Synturian system delivers situational understanding to the point of action. Built around a service-oriented architecture for rapid capability integration, users can access new capabilities with plugand-play simplicity through the universal interface. This gives users the same experience across controlled assets, with a map-centric view that brings mission information forward while platform status is automated in the background.

Synturian Remote has successfully demonstrated its remote terminal capabilities with Shadow, Aerosonde, and Textron Aviation’s special missions platforms.

The iCommand suite is a battlespace management system that links people, platforms and payloads in a real-time and highly intuitive, integrated experience. iCommand is a Integrated Command Suite which delivers superior command and control technology. ICommand harnesses real time data fusion to provide synchronized C2 across manned and unmanned systems, unparalleled operational pictures for decision makers and provide touch screen speed for contingency planning, decision making and asset management. The iCommand suite links people, platforms and payloads in real time.

The RemoteView Pro is comprehensive imagery analysis capabilities which can quickly find, interpret and annotate items of interest. The RemoteView Pro includes toolsets for imager and multi-image analysis, centric graphical user interface (GUI) and customizable streamlined navigation and workflow-aligned toolbars and profiles. The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), Ground and Maritime collects imagery and information, the RemoteView software allows tactical teams to interpret and analyze the information collected.

References and resources also include

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