Marine Corps Developing Low Cost Robot Swarms to Counter Enemy Drones

By Allyson Versprille
As the technology for unmanned systems proliferates, one of the biggest challenges facing the military today is countering small, inexpensive drones used by the enemy in unexpected ways, said a Marine Corps official.

“Growth in [unmanned system] capabilities, coupled with their affordability and accessibility, make it increasingly more difficult to identify how our potential adversaries will employ these systems,” said Jeff Tomczak, director of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory’s science and technology division. “Based upon our success in using unmanned systems, we know that the enemy is adapting, and to a larger degree, openly purchasing similar technology to use on tomorrow’s battlefield.”

For these reasons, the service is aggressively pursuing capabilities to counter unmanned systems that will be ready when they are needed the most, he said.

There are several government agencies and military branches examining this problem, said Capt. Adam Thomas, the aviation combat element branch head for the S&T division of the warfighting lab.

These threats exist today, he added. “These aren’t future threats we’re talking about. This is stuff that is out there that we are running up against.”

State and non-state actors are using easily obtained and modified commercial, off-the-shelf drones for malicious purposes, he said.

He pointed to recent incidents where the Islamic State has used small unmanned aerial systems to conduct mission planning, real-time surveillance and to help direct artillery fire against its enemies. The group is “employing unmanned aircraft, and they’re conducting reconnaissance on the forces they’re fighting,” Thomas said.

To develop a potential solution to this problem and prepare for how the enemy might employ unmanned systems in the future, the Marine Corps is focusing on key capabilities such as swarming and collaborative autonomy.

Swarming technology would allow a Marine to employ a horde of small, inexpensive drones to perform a variety of missions. Swarms can range in size but typically consist of 10 to 50 expendable unmanned aerial systems, according to a Marine Corps fact sheet. This technology has the potential to be used against both manned and unmanned platforms, Tomczak said.

Because the U.S. military is looking at this technology as a possible offensive capability, it has to be assumed that other countries are also exploring this concept and will employ it in the future, he said.

“You create a capability and then you’ve got to remember that someone else is going to create it probably within the next 10 years, and you want to be able to counter it,” Tomczak said. “When these other countries employ swarming, how do you defend against it? Potentially having your own swarm, swarm on swarm, is one solution.”

While the technology could be used in a defensive capacity against other unmanned systems, it also has potential as an offensive capability against advanced weapon systems such as missiles, according to Marine Corps officials.

Drone swarms have the capacity to flip the cost-to-kill ratio upside down, Thomas said.

“If you throw a bunch of relatively cheap, expendable platforms at an adversary, he’s having to waste usually a significant number of assets to try to knock those swarm platforms down,” he said. Additionally, “he’s having to spend a significant amount of money to knock them out, using exquisite systems like missiles.”

Tomczak agreed: “With the swarm technology, the potential here is that I can throw these little things out there for pennies compared to … a more advanced missile,” he said. “I can defeat the [enemy] missile system, not with one big hit but with multiple smaller hits that are less expensive than the bigger missile so you can save that bigger missile for something more important.”

Small drones could be used to destroy fighter jets by flying into the jet’s intake and damaging the engine, Tomczak added. Swarm vehicles could also disable an anti-access/area denial radar system by carrying emitters that could “blind the system” when the drones are landed in its vicinity, he said.

They could carry a multitude of payloads including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensors, kinetic warheads, and electronic warfare systems to jam an adversary’s platforms, Thomas said.

To further develop the technology, the Marine Corps is working with academia to organize a competition that will pit one organization’s swarm against another’s. The result will be similar to a game of “capture the flag,” Tomczak said.

“We’re in the initial stages … of working with other organizations to plan the event, but right now we have approval and we have funding to put together” the competition, he said. “It’s a challenge that goes out to universities, to private industry, the commercial side, government side to see who can put together an aerial swarm.”

Thomas said the contest would also provide an opportunity for organizations from all sectors to share notes and look at alternative technologies that are being developed. “It would be a good time for people to collaborate and meet with each other and get a look at everyone else’s technologies.”

The challenge is currently slated to occur in summer 2016, and will most likely take place in southern California though the exact location has yet to be determined, Thomas said.

In addition to the Marine Corps, the Office of Naval Research is examining the swarming concept in a program it calls LOCUST (Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology). The Air Force and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are also developing such technology.

Another capability the Marine Corps is experimenting with is autonomous collaboration between two unmanned systems. A project known as Unmanned Tactical Autonomous Control and Collaboration, or UTACC, is an attempt to prove that the concept of collaborative autonomy is valid and can be utilized in an operational environment.

“What we’re looking at is a team of robots that collaboratively work together in order to solve missions for Marines,” said Capt. James Pineiro, the ground combat element branch head for the S&T division of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory.

The idea is that one Marine can task multiple robotic systems with finding an object or threat such as an improvised explosive device or enemy drone. The robots can then communicate autonomously in tandem to find the object, freeing up the Marine to perform other missions, Pineiro said.

Tomczak said UTACC has the potential to work as a counter drone capability because collaborative autonomy gives the war fighter control over unmanned systems on the surface, ground and in the air.

The capability increases situational awareness. A Marine can direct an action — such as destroying an enemy’s system — and the robots can communicate with each other to decide which is in a better position to carry out that mission.

“We can task the system, and the system will decide which of the robotic systems are best able to perform it,” Tomczak said.

The Marine Corps has proven that an unmanned aerial system can fly into another UAS, but that might not always be the best solution, he noted. It could be more advantageous to shoot the system down from the ground or respond with a layered defense using both air and ground systems. Those are the types of decisions UTACC could make autonomously before obtaining final approval from the Marine to destroy the target, Tomczak said. 

UTACC was successfully demonstrated for the first time at Carnegie Mellon University in February.

During the demonstration, the system performed a simple reconnaissance mission. An object was hidden in a room, and a ground robot with an unmanned aerial system attached to its back was tasked with finding it. The ground system created a three dimensional map of the room and when it could not locate the object, it communicated on its own to the air system and directed it to look for the item. The drone found the object hidden on a shelf, snapped a picture, reported that information to the ground system and the ground robot reported back to the Marine.

There are several big players involved in the UTACC project, Pineiro said. The Naval Postgraduate School is writing the operational thesis and concepts for the capability. NASA is providing robotics expertise. Carnegie Mellon is improving the advanced autonomy of the service’s robotic systems, he said.

In December the Marine Corps will perform a limited technical experiment at Ellis Hall in Quantico, Virginia, to test UTACC in a more complicated indoor reconnaissance scenario. “It’s going to be looking at the battle space, figuring out what’s important, and then providing that information back,” Pineiro said.

In 2018, the service will conduct a final limited objective experiment, which will involve using the system in live force experimentation. “Out of that experiment we should have a system — robots identified, the software identified — to show that the concept is either valid or not valid and what needs to be done with it. At that time, the military acquisition cycle would have to take over.”

Pineiro stressed that UTACC is not a means to completely remove Marines from a task but to simply make it easier for them to perform their mission. “The robots are able to control themselves and then they provide updates, but there’s always a human in the loop,” he said. “Nothing ever happens without permission from the operator.”

Tomczak said all near term robotics projects would continue to keep Marines involved in the mission. “We’re not doing anything that’s fully autonomous,” he said. What “we’re trying to achieve [is] a relationship between robotics systems and the Marines; we’re trying to reduce the workload.”

To further examine these issues and the future role of autonomous technology in the military, the service is planning a war game for fiscal year 2017, he said.

“We are going to look at … air, ground, surface, subsurface” systems, Tomczak said. “What we’re trying to do is take a look at autonomy and robotics in an operational environment to find out things we don’t know — how we would use it, how we might want to use it, how we may not want to use it.”

The war game will be the first of its kind for the Marine Corps, he said. It’s “going to explore the art of the possible with autonomy and robotics.”

Topics: Robotics

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