Ask physicist Brad Knaus how he got into unmanned systems and he’ll tell you he started out working for the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SSC) Atlantic Air Traffic Control division, focusing on counter measures and detection for small unmanned systems. Ask him how he got into drones and he’ll tell you, “It just kind of snowballed into more interest from there. It’s addicting.”
Now Knaus works on something a little different: drones, using autonomous systems to pilot them and getting a swarm of them to work in tandem. Operating a drone, more technically known as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), safely in the air is no easy feat — but it takes even more planning and ground support to operate a swarm of 30 UAVs.
That’s the task for the SSC Atlantic Unmanned Systems Research (SAUSR) Range team, led by Knaus. Since its inception in 2010, Knaus’ team has worked with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to get autonomous technology in the hands of warfighters. Most recently, that autonomy has taken the shape of a fleet of dozens of remote-controlled drones.
“We’re exploring the capabilities of unmanned systems and the potential threats to the warfighter,” said Knaus when asked to describe his team’s core mission. But exactly what are unmanned systems, what does “swarming” entail and how can they thwart foreign threats to the warfighter?
Unmanned aerial, ground and underwater vehicles have been used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions for more than a decade, but not without a human operator at the helm, guiding the vehicle’s every move from the control room. UAVs are particularly useful for giving troops “an eye in the sky” and delivering payloads. Until recently, performing tasks like these with a single drone required an operator.
What makes the SAUSR Range team’s work different is there is no need for a one-to-one, drone-to-operator ratio. There are dozens, or a “swarm,” of them per pilot, and that pilot’s primary role is backup support.
“For the last two years we’ve focused a lot on the swarming aspect of drones, so we’re trying to see how a single operator can operate multiple UAVs simultaneously and what sort of strategic benefits that can bring the warfighter versus the standard one person per asset model,” said D.J. Tyree, a software developer for the team.
Tyree likes to explain drone swarms in the context of basketball. “Imagine you’re playing one on five. What can you do when you’re one guy, one asset, going up against five, or 50, or 100? You’ve got to increase your number of assets without increasing manpower. That’s where swarming comes in.”
Swarming capability means getting a flock of drones up into the air that can act autonomously and as a team to carry out a preprogrammed mission. It means one or two pilots on the ground instead of 50. It’s a feat that requires a highly-skilled, multifaceted team of engineers and scientists. Together they’re working hard to keep the Navy on the forefront of drone swarm technology.
“Swarming has not been researched in depth, so there aren’t a lot of tools out there and there are not a lot of people doing research in these areas,” said Carter. “So we’re not only having to create these tools and research as we go, but we also must create new concepts for how to autonomously control drones.”
Knaus called enemy drone swarming one of the biggest emerging threats to the warfighter before pointing out the potential for a homeland threat as well, which is why it is crucial that SSC Atlantic stays in the forefront of drone swarm technology.
“By exploring that threat, I think we can all get a better understanding of how to combat it. It’s the next frontier for the warfighter,” said Knaus. “It’s the evolution of warfighting that we need to be ahead of and understand better than they do.”
There are tactical advantages to using unmanned drone swarms. For one thing, it’s more cost effective, especially when compared to some popular UAV models that cost upwards of $25,000 per asset for just the hardware. It’s much cheaper and more logistically agile to use a lighter-weight drone system flexible enough for rapid prototyping.
“As these drones become more and more commercially available, the costs are going to be driven down,” said Carter, who added that their own research will also help drive costs down. “So instead of spending $100,000 on one UAV to send up for surveillance information, you can send up drones that cost a few hundred dollars and get the same information.”
Another tactical advantage is what Carter described as a “sheer show of force.” A swarm of many drones acting in tandem paints a more powerful picture than one larger drone, such as the popular Raven. “The idea of ‘power in numbers’ is definitely a factor in using drone swarms to thwart threats to the warfighter,” Knaus added.
Scalability is another big advantage in using unmanned systems over manned ones. Scaling up the number of assets in the air, without having to increase the number of bodies on the ground, keeps risk to the warfighter low. And SSC Atlantic is uniquely capable of doing the research that will drive down those costs and improve scalability. “We have a mechanical engineer, an electrical engineer, a software developer and an expert on unmanned systems,” said Knaus. “We all work together as a team.”
The team also credits its support from DARPA. “Because of our work with DARPA, we have a lot of assets and a lot of experience,” Knaus said.
Carter pointed out that, while DARPA originally played a key role in kicking off the drone swarm project, SSC Atlantic has given them the support they need to continue innovating and working to get this technology in the hands of the warfighter. Internal funding through the Navy Innovative Science and Engineering funding program is what has made the development of this technology possible. “We’re a good facilitator for special projects like this because you need the unique capabilities we have here,” Carter said. It’s capabilities like these that help SSC Atlantic hone in on its focus on autonomy and cybersecurity.
“Autonomy is 85 percent of this. Cybersecurity with this technology presents a whole new challenge. We must learn how to secure these systems from the Red Team,” said Knaus, referring to SSC Atlantic’s team of “hackers” who aim to infiltrate security systems to uncover problem areas.
“We are working on the forefront of autonomy,” Tyree said. “What we’re doing is advancing autonomy at its very core, figuring out how to use autonomy and swarming in ways it hasn’t yet been utilized with UAVs. So that is absolutely one of the growth areas we work directly towards.”
The SAUSR Range team got a chance to see their hard work in action in April last year at DARPA’s quarterly Service Academy Swarm Challenge (SASC). SASC was an eight month event that included multiple virtual challenges in which the academies developed tactics and competed against each other to gain expertise in the field of swarming. It concluded with a live-fly competition at Camp Roberts in California in which the armed services and their research teams used real-life scenarios to observe how the warfighter interacts with new drone swarm technology, providing crucial hands-on training to the warfighter.
Supporting SASC has given the team the experience they needed to become SMEs in the field of UAS swarm technology. Now they’re well-equipped for their work on integrating a heterogeneous swarm of UASs into the USMC Tactical Training Exercise Control Group (TTECG) Integrated Training Exercises (ITX). During these quarterly exercises, Knaus and the team are exposing Operational Forces to the capabilities and threats that a swarm of UASs can present to the warfighter.
According to Tyree, building relationships directly with the warfighter has been indispensable in his team’s quest to build the best, most user-friendly swarm of drones. “The ITX events are their last stop before being deployed,” said Tyree. “So it’s our job to show them what’s possible with a UAV, what to expect when they’re seeing it in the field and what benefits it could provide them in theater.”
“Marines love it,” Knaus added. “They say it’s some of the best training they’ve had.”
Knaus’s team will be able to return from California and immediately use what they learned working in the field with Marines on further innovation in heterogeneous swarms of unmanned systems.
“We’re getting out ahead of the game, and we’re grateful we have the tools and opportunities we need to do that,” said Knaus. Lead time between prototypes has certainly decreased since the project first kicked off two years ago, before their work space at the SAUSR range was built. “We used to work out of a trailer. We’ve come a long way since then,” Knaus said.
There’s still work to be done when it comes to minimizing the logistical work it takes before even getting a swarm of a dozen or more UAVs off the ground. “Current technology is a net reduction of force. If you want one drone in the air, it may take 10 people on the ground supporting it,” said Sullivan. “What we’re trying to do with swarming is achieve a net multiplication of force where you need less people than you have assets in the air.”
That’s what Knaus and his team continue to work on now: minimizing human risk while maximizing the usefulness of swarm technology. Knaus calls this the “50,000-foot view” of the team’s mission. “The more safely and efficiently we can get these autonomous drones up in the air, the safer our warfighters will be on the ground.”
SSC Atlantic provides systems engineering and acquisition to deliver information warfare capabilities to the naval, joint and national warfighter through the acquisition, development, integration, production, test, deployment, and sustainment of interoperable command, control, communication, computers, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (C4ISR), cyber and information technology (IT) capabilities.