AUSA News: Army Searches High and Low for Aircraft Autonomy Tech

By Josh Luckenbaugh

DARPA illustration

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. military is embracing autonomy as it constructs the future force, and one Army official said a standard system that could plug into different platforms could prove quite useful.

The Army has begun a new human-machine integrated formations initiative in which robots will make first contact with enemy forces. Meanwhile, the Air Force is developing uncrewed collaborative combat aircraft to fly alongside its next-generation fighters and bombers.

As the Army develops autonomous systems for its Future Vertical Lift platforms, the service “routinely” communicates with “our joint partners and our counterparts” at the Office of Naval Research and the Air Force Research Laboratory, said Maj. Gen. Walter Rugen, director of Army Aviation for the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff G-3/5/7.

“There's good crosstalk,” Rugen said during a media roundtable at the Association of the United States Army’s annual conference Oct. 10. “Is it flawless? No, but it is very good crosstalk.”

Jim Kirsch, director of the Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation and Missile Center, said along with collaborating with other services, the Army is monitoring the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's autonomy programs, as well as tracking what investments industry is making into the technology.

“And it's not just in the air domain either,” Kirsch said. “So, the autonomy experts in aviation autonomy are also talking with the ground autonomy experts to ensure we're learning as much as we can from each other. And I think one of the things that is relatively important as we talk about this is constructing what we might call an autonomy stack, if you will, to allow you to plug and play as numerical algorithms or new techniques come in, then we can plug those in without having to redesign the entire system.”

One area where autonomy could aid Army aviation is deconfliction as airspace grows more congested with not just helicopters, but now unmanned aircraft systems of various shapes and sizes.

“We have used in the past … [what] I would call Industrial Age airspace deconfliction techniques, where we basically sectioned off airspace for different users,” said Maj. Gen. Michael McCurry, commanding general of the Army Aviation Center of Excellence and Fort Novosel, Alabama.

“What we really want on the future, large-scale, common operations battlefield from a components perspective is, I've got to have the ability to do my protection warfighting functions,” McCurry said. “I've got to be able to take down what the enemy is throwing at us. I've got to be able to employ our fires warfighting function, so I’ve got to be able to shoot up through there long range. And then we want to be able to still operate our uncrewed and manned platforms.”

In short, Army aircraft have to be “able to occupy the same airspace and do that all at the same time,” he said.

Tackling this issue from an autonomy standpoint reveals there’s “really not so much a problem with the AI piece of it as it is understanding what sensors do I need to allow me to understand the small things that are close to me, as well as being able to reach out and look around at the things I might run into in the future,” Kirsch said.

“It’s kind of a trade-off, right? If I really want to know what's really close around me, then I'm not focused on what's way out in front of me,” he said. “So, it's finding that optimal mix of sensors that gives us the situational awareness that allows the autonomy to navigate through that airspace.”

The Army has used the Program Executive Office Aviation’s Integrated Mission Planning and Airspace Control Tools, or IMPACT, system “to great effect for much more agile airspace management,” and is also monitoring DARPA’s Air Space Total Awareness for Rapid Tactical Execution, or ASTARTE, program “to transition into our requirements,” Rugen said.

In February, DARPA announced that the ASTARTE automated flightpath-planning software — designed by RTX, formerly Raytheon Technologies — had successfully deconflicted friendly missiles, artillery fire and manned and unmanned aircraft while avoiding enemy fires in a simulated battle in contested airspace. The ASTARTE software also seamlessly integrated with the Army’s IMPACT software suite, developed by General Dynamics Mission Systems, a DARPA release said.

“The demonstration showed that complex route alternatives could be created in seconds, leveraging available permissive airspace to avoid airspace where conflicts would potentially occur,” Paul Zablocky, ASTARTE program manager in DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office, said in the release. “There are many reasons this integration helps the warfighter. Coordinating and consolidating services at the user level greatly reduces procedural burden, which speeds the enterprise,” as well increasing accuracy by automating tasks and reducing human error.

“Most importantly, the ASTARTE and IMPACT integration forms a foundation of artificial intelligence-enabled services that will interact with other service component AI tools such as the Air Force’s Kessel Run All Domain Operations Suite for planning and the All Domain Common Platform for operations,” Zablocky added.

Rugen said both IMPACT and ASTARTE “show great, great promise [for] much more agile airspace deconfliction.”


Topics: Army News

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