Pro­gram for col­lab­o­ra­tive, au­tonomous un­manned air­craft tested at YPG

The Outpost - - Front Page - By Ta­batha Thomp­son

On a brisk Fe­bru­ary morn­ing in the Yuma desert, a swarm of un­manned aerial ve­hi­cles equipped with DARPA’s Col­lab­o­ra­tive Op­er­a­tions in De­nied En­vi­ron­ment sys­tem, or CODE, suc­cess­fully car­ried out mis­sion ob­jec­tives, even when com­mu­ni­ca­tions were offline and GPS was un­avail­able.

One-by-one, six RQ-23 Tiger­sharks lifted off, fit­ted with an ar­ray of sensors on­board. Next to the run­way at the U.S. Army’s Yuma Prov­ing Ground, the mis­sion team in­side a small op­er­a­tions cen­ter tracked the air­craft and as many as 14 ad­di­tional vir­tual planes on an aerial map. The cap­stone demon­stra­tion paired pro­gram per­former Raytheon’s soft­ware and au­ton­omy al­go­rithms and Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity Ap­plied Physics Lab­o­ra­tory’s White Force Net­work to create a re­al­is­tic, live/ vir­tual/con­struc­tive test en­vi­ron­ment. Dur­ing four demon­stra­tion runs, the team ac­ti­vated a va­ri­ety of vir­tual targets, threats, and coun­ter­mea­sures to see how well the Tiger­sharks could com­plete their ob­jec­tives in sub­op­ti­mal con­di­tions.

“Ex­actly how the air­craft con­tinue to work to­gether in de­graded con­di­tions is the most chal­leng­ing as­pect of this pro­gram,” said Scott Wierzbanowski, the DARPA pro­gram man­ager for CODE in the Tac­ti­cal Tech­nol­ogy Of­fice. “Cur­rent pro­ce­dures re­quire at least one op­er­a­tor per UAV in the field. Equipped with CODE, one op­er­a­tor can com­mand mul­ti­ple air­craft; and in a de­nied en­vi­ron­ment, the air­craft con­tinue to­ward mis­sion ob­jec­tives, col­lab­o­rat­ing and adapt­ing for de­fi­cien­cies.”

Be­fore, if op­er­a­tors lost com­mu­ni­ca­tions with a UAV, the sys­tem would re­vert to its last pro­grammed mis­sion. Now, under the CODE par­a­digm, teams of sys­tems can au­tonomously share in­for­ma­tion and col­lab­o­rate to adapt and re­spond to dif­fer­ent targets or threats as they pop up.

“CODE can port into ex­ist­ing UAV sys­tems and con­duct col­lab­o­ra­tive op­er­a­tions,” said Wierzbanowski. “CODE is a gov­ern­men­towned sys­tem, and we are work­ing closely with our part­ners at the Air Force Re­search Lab­o­ra­tory and Naval Air Sys­tems Com­mand to keep each other in­formed of suc­cesses and chal­lenges, and mak­ing sure we don’t repli­cate work. In the end, our ser­vice part­ners will lever­age what we’ve done and add on what they need.”

The Tiger­sharks em­ployed in the demon­stra­tion are surrogate as­sets for CODE. Each has about one­tenth the speed and per­for­mance of the air­craft planned for in­te­gra­tion, but shows trace­abil­ity to larger plat­forms. Con­struc­tive and vir­tual threats and ef­fects pre­sented by the White Force Net­work are ap­pro­pri­ately scaled to the Tiger­sharks’ ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

“It’s easy to take the CODE soft­ware and move it from plat­form to plat­form, both from a com­puter and ve­hi­cle per­spec­tive. It could be a manned air­craft, un­manned air­craft, or a ground ve­hi­cle,” said J.C. Ledé, tech­ni­cal ad­vi­sor for au­ton­omy with the Air Force Re­search Lab­o­ra­tory. “The con­cept for CODE is play­based tac­tics, so you can create new tac­tics rel­a­tively eas­ily to go from mis­sion to mis­sion.”

The Naval Air Sys­tems Com­mand (NAVAIR) will take own­er­ship of CODE after DARPA closes out the agency’s role in the pro­gram this year. It al­ready has built a repos­i­tory of al­go­rithms tested through­out the de­vel­op­ment process.

“What we’re do­ing with the lab­o­ra­tory we set up is not just for the Navy or NAVAIR. We’re trying to make our ca­pa­bil­i­ties avail­able through­out the en­tire DoD com­mu­nity,” said Stephen Kra­ci­novich, di­rec­tor of au­ton­omy strat­egy for the Naval Air War­fare Cen­ter Air­craft Di­vi­sion (NAWCAD). “If the Army wanted to lever­age the DARPA pro­to­type, we’d provide them not just with the soft­ware, but an open de­vel­op­ment en­vi­ron­ment with all the se­cu­rity pro­to­cols al­ready taken care of.”

Kra­ci­novich says NAWCAD has a cadre of peo­ple with hands-on knowl­edge of the sys­tem, and is ready to help port the ca­pa­bil­ity to any other DoD en­tity. That ease of tran­si­tion puts CODE tech­nolo­gies on a clear path to as­sist de­ployed ser­vice mem­bers by en­abling col­lab­o­ra­tive au­tonomous sys­tems teams to op­er­ate in con­tested and de­nied en­vi­ron­ments with min­i­mal hu­man su­per­vi­sion.

In re­cent tests at YPG, un­manned aerial ve­hi­cles equipped with DARPA’s Col­lab­o­ra­tive Op­er­a­tions in De­nied En­vi­ron­ment (CODE) sys­tem suc­cess­fully car­ried out mis­sion ob­jec­tives, even when com­mu­ni­ca­tions were offline and GPS was un­avail­able. The Tiger­sharks un­manned air­craft em­ployed in the demon­stra­tion are surrogate as­sets for CODE. Each has about one-tenth the speed and per­for­mance of the air­craft planned for in­te­gra­tion, but shows trace­abil­ity to larger plat­forms. (US Army photo)

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