Service-academy challenge pushes DARPA to test groups of unmanned vehicles

ARMY NATIONAL GUARD CAMP ROBERTS, Calif. More than 40 cadets and midshipmen from the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Naval Academy, and the U.S. Air Force Academy recently participated in the "Service Academies Swarm Challenge," in which teams formed and tested the capabilities of swarms of highly autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) invited the young officers-in-training to develop and flight test novel ideas for how best to use UAV swarms in future wars.The three-day experiment concluded with an aerial battle in which the Naval Academy took home the win, a trophy, and bragging rights over its rival academies.

DARPA tasked the student teams with demonstrating 25-on-25 mixed swarms of fixed-wing and quad-rotor aircraft conducting swarm-on-swarm battles. In the eight months leading up to the final Live-Fly Competition, the students had to manage their own packed schedules, diverse areas of study, and the complex technology, logistics, and team assignments for the competition itself. In addition, during the run-up to the challenge, DARPA developed, built, and tested custom communications networks and various real-time data-visualization systems designed to track dozens of UAVs simultaneously.

Before the Live-Fly Competition, no team had fielded more than four airborne craft at the same time. The first day, the competing teams raised that number to 20 aircraft per side, in mixed groups of fixed-wing UAVs and quadrotors. Two short days later, on the last day of competition, the championship match saw 60 aircraft flying at once: 25 on 25 competing, with five additional aircraft aloft per team circling in reserve. Ultimately, the Navy UAV team defeated the Air Force's team, 86-81, in a hard-fought championship match in which the lead changed four times before the clock ran out.

Brad Tousley, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, which oversaw the competition, said that the Service Academies Swarm Challenge focused the students on the fact that in the future, when these capabilities are in real military systems, they may have the opportunity to use swarms of much larger numbers of unmanned entities, whether the machines are UAVs, unmanned undersea vehicles, unmanned ground vehicles, or even satellites.

Tousley added, "One of DARPA’s jobs is to make sure that every fight we go into is an unfair fight in our favor. That means ensuring that these midshipmen and cadets as future officers can use unmanned systems in a swarm configuration more effectively than their adversarial counterparts.”

Timothy Chung, DARPA program manager, explains a real-time data visualization system used for the Service Academies Swarm Challenge.