DARPA’s got biotech, transformers and robots, so what’s next on their agenda? Robotic teamwork. DARPA has issued a request for proposals “in the area of advanced collaborative autonomy for aerial platforms.” They’re looking primarily for software, but “to a lesser extent,” hardware as well. They’re particularly seeking research leading to “evolutionary improvements to the existing state of practice.” In other words, they’re looking for robots or drones that can communicate, assemble, and coordinate attacks or other missions from the air by themselves.
What I think is interesting is that DARPA’s taking humans out of the equation. Human-robot teamwork has been a priority when it comes to robotic development, particularly in the workplace. While humans do the programming and issue commands, DARPA’s looking for a fleet that doesn’t need humans for anything else. Hello, Skynet.
Having one autonomous drone, or even a fleet of autonomous drones, could certainly be helpful, but imagine having a fleet of them, working together to coordinate strikes. Some drones could do recon, gathering intelligence about where targets are and their movements, and other drones could react in real time. It sounds effective — and terrifying. It’s likely that this RFP anticipates other countries increasing their use of drones. A drone vs. drone military scenario isn’t difficult to imagine, so perhaps getting drones to work together is the best way to stay ahead of the curve.
The 110-page PDF detailing DARPA’s RFPs mentions that “most of the current inventory is not well matched to the needs of future conflicts, which DARPA anticipates being much less permissive, very dynamic, and characterized by a higher level of threats, contested electromagnetic spectrum, and re-locatable targets.” The technology DARPA currently has available has “very limited ability” to respond and adapt to changes in the environment on its own. This makes the current systems vulnerable to attack, which, given their cost, makes them unfeasible to maintain. And speaking of cost, having human crews operate these drones is expensive as well.
DARPA outlines a few mission aspects that would particularly benefit from this technology:
- Long distances;
- A congested and contested electro-magnetic spectrum, which is especially challenging to our space-based high bandwidth communication and positioning (GPS) services;
- Mobile or rapidly re-locatable targets;
- Significant use of decoys, camouflage, and other denial techniques;
- High threat levels, where manned assets could be at great risk; and
- Highly integrated defenses requiring coordinated actions for defeat.
But maybe DARPA isn’t just looking for more effective ways to waste people on the battlefield. Cooperative aerial systems could focus more on information gathering, performing coordinated searches or more efficiently covering ground to help facilitate other operations, such as possible rescues or support of other drones and/or humans. Depending on the way such a system works, perhaps the robots or drones could actually link together to increase their physical capabilities, such as with this aerial assembly system shown below.
Who are we kidding? Of course this is about tactical leverage. And DARPA wants this to happen pretty quickly, with its timeline indicating full mission demonstrations by 2018. For now, we’ll just have to hope that these drones play well together — but not too well.