$20M to Develop UAV Swarm Technologies
Alion Science and Technology Corp. in Chicago, IL won a $20 million cost-plus-fixed-fee, indefinite-delivery/ indefinite-quantity contract for technical services to “develop an intelligent control system for swarming unmanned vehicles to demonstrate autonomous operations and cooperative behavior for persistent surveillance.”
The Smart Warfighting Array of Reconfigurable Modules (SWARM) UAV project at the Naval Surface Warfare Center has already assembled a fleet of 10 lightweight units designed to be used in a cooperative fashion, functioning together as a ‘swarm’ of aircraft. The UAVs would communicate relevant information and can reconfigure themselves, autonomously changing direction in response to sensor input to achieve the mission at hand. For example, if you have 100 aircraft collecting sensor input over a field of operation and five of them have engine failure or are shot out of the sky, the rest would reconfigure themselves to collect the required data and complete the mission.
The vehicles need to be low cost to support the swarming concept, where individual UAVs could fly in support of a squad or hundreds could fly together. Current cost targets are for UAVs in the $2,000 range.
The application of swarm theory to unmanned vehicles has also attracted considerable interest among military researchers, who are intrigued by the idea of enabling groups of vehicles to sense and respond automatically, without having to be controlled individually by operators on the ground. Swarming technologies offer a new way to approach mission design, mission risk and mission requirements.
One important element to this aspect of swarm research lies in developing the most effective software routines needed to enable autonomous operations of the group, specifically the development of cooperative behavior algorithms. Other researchers continue to experiment with a variety of approaches, which include models based on potential fields and on pheromones, which are the chemicals secreted by ants and other insects to convey messages to others in their group.
The Office of Naval Research’s Autonomous Intelligent Networks and Systems project has conducted swarm-related research with small UAVs for surveillance operations in Iraq. SWARM UAVs may have additional applications with Navy ships at sea or law enforcement organizations such as the Border Patrol.
Work on this particular contract will be performed in Morgantown, WV and is expected to be completed in May 2009. This contract was competitively procured using Broad Agency Announcement, with one offer received. The Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division in Patuxent River, MD issued the contract (N00421-05-D-0016).
Additional Readings & Sources
- GizMag (March 20/05) – New software allows a flock of UAVs to work together. Describes work at NASA to investigate cooperative flight strategies for airborne monitoring and surveillance of natural disasters, aid to wildfire suppression crews, and atmospheric sampling. For the tests, NASA used the Piccolo autopilot system and global positioning system (GPS) transmitters to enable a pair of RnR Products APV-3 UAVs to maneuver responsively in relation to each other.
- Military Aerospace Technology (March 16/05): Swarming UAVs
- Mental Meanderings Blog: Army Nifty Toys, Someday. Excellent analysis of the economic and operational aspects of squad-level UAVs.
- Proceedings of International Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IC-AI) 2005 – Hexmoor et. al.: Swarm Control in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles [Google HTML | PDF file]
- Velocity Magazine (Dec 2004): On the Edge of Chaos
- Defense Technical Information Center Small Business Innovation Research Archive: Very Low Noise, High Efficiency Propeller Designs for Small UAVs
- UAV World (Jan 2004): Next Step for UAV Swarm Concept