Service Academies Swarm Challenge: Controlling drone swarms

A fourth-year capstone design course, the Swarm Challenge has pushed students to achieve “zero to swarm in eight months.” The goal: help the academies go from having little swarm-related expertise to developing capabilities with potentially near-term applicability for operational training and fielding — all within one academic year.

“This is one of the first opportunities for the next generation of operators and tacticians to explore and understand swarm-versus-swarm interactions,” Chung said. “It’s not just about the platforms or the links or the communications — it’s about behaviors. That’s one of the key takeaways for the Service Academies Swarm Challenge: that we’re really zeroing in on swarm tactics as a battle skill. That’s where advances will reap innovative benefits for future warfighters.”

Ranging in size from 11 to 21 students, the teams bring cross-disciplinary expertise in diverse technical and nontechnical fields, from computer science, robotics, and systems engineering to military strategy and operations. The students also bring fresh insights that DARPA and the U.S. military can learn from — and potentially expand upon — to enhance the tactical effectiveness of swarm systems.

DARPA provided all the hardware, much of the software, and a lot of know-how to get the teams started. The Agency also developed new support infrastructure to enable the teams to practice and compete in a virtual environment in preparation for this week. DARPA initially provided some example swarm tactics and the teams have since designed a number of their own to debut at the Live-Fly Competition.

The Service Academies Swarm Challenge is testing cutting-edge swarm tactics through a time-honored game that is all about tactics: Capture the Flag. Two teams at a time play inside the Battle Cube, a cubic airspace 500 meters on a side, 78 meters above the ground. Each team has been given 20 fixed-wing UAVs and 20 quad-rotor UAVs and, under the rules of play, can field a mixed fleet of up to 25 UAVs for each of two 30-minute battle rounds. Each team protects its “flag” (a large, inflatable ground target) while trying to score the most points before time runs out.

Teams seek to score the most points in the following ways:

  • Air-to-air “tags” by using a simulated (virtual) weapon to hit a sensor on an opponent’s UAV in flight
  • Air-to-ground “tags” by physically landing a UAV on the opponent’s “flag” located on the ground
  • Accomplishments in swarm logistics by launching as many UAVs as quickly as possible and keeping them aloft as long as possible

As scheduled over the next three days, the first match pits Air Force against Army; the second, Army plays Navy, and the third match has Navy squaring off against Air Force. The team that wins both of its matches wins the competition and takes home a trophy and bragging rights.

Technical Challenges
While people often think about swarms as simply being large collections of robots, swarms in fact have five defining characteristics: number, agent complexity, collective complexity, heterogeneity, and human-swarm interaction. The Service Academies Swarm Challenge is designed to explore these characteristics as they apply to both offensive and defensive swarm tactics, and to harness and leverage them for warfighter benefit.

Operationalizing swarm-related capabilities poses many significant challenges, from technology (for example, battery size and life, user interfaces) to logistics (for example, transport, upkeep) to understanding the limitations of what swarms can do. The Swarm Challenge provides an experimental testbed that manages these challenges so the academy students can focus on creating innovative swarm tactics.

DARPA’s interest in developing breakthrough swarm capabilities for national security extends beyond the Swarm Challenge to a number of current programs exploring autonomy, communications, and other technologies, including:

Looking Ahead
DARPA says that the results of the Live-Fly Competition remain to be seen, but the Service Academies Swarm Challenge has already planted the seeds for future growth in the increasingly important domain of swarm tactics. Thanks to the past eight months of work, all three academies now have basic curricula and frameworks for conducting unique, accelerated research and field experiments on swarm tactics. The institutions also have dozens of students who have worked side-by-side with leading-edge researchers and operators experienced with advancing the state of knowledge of swarm systems.

“The Cadets and Midshipmen participating in the Service Academies Swarm Challenge will soon be officers, where they can further hone their swarm-tactics skills and share their know-how with fellow Service members,” Chung said. “Building on the lessons they have learned, they can help accelerate us toward a near future in which Service members are able to quickly take advantage of anticipated advances in unmanned aerial system technologies and apply their skills in new and ever more creative ways. No matter which academy comes out on top here, U.S. warfighters will be the ultimate winners.”