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Autonomous aerial vehicles test new dogfighting skills

24 April 2017

Possibly the first aerial encounter of its kind, researchers pitted two swarms of autonomous aircraft against one another over a military test facility.

A single Zephyr aircraft is launched at Camp Roberts in Monterey County, California during a demonstration by the Georgia Tech Research Institute and the Naval Postgraduate School. (U.S. Navy photo by Javier Chagoya)

The air match provided the first example of a live engagement between two swarms of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) and allowed the two teams, one from Georgia Tech Research Institute and the other from Naval Postgraduate School, 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 defence 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.

Six Zephyr aircraft are shown in flight during a demonstration between two swarms of unmanned air vehicles. (U.S. Navy photo by Javier Chagoya)

“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.

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.

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.

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