Battlefield Game Changer

Autonomous drones engineered for tactical advantage

Tech. Sgt. Brandon Shapiro


Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) works to develop autonomous quadcopters that can operate in GPS-denied areas without human intervention. (U.S. Air Force Video // Travis Burcham)

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Central Florida

The era of drone warfare is in full force; embrace the concept and unveil its multifaceted advantages, oppose the concept and watch the adversary swiftly frustrate, compromise, and shape the battlefield.

The technology has come a long way from loading unmanned balloons with explosives and hoping the wind takes them in the direction of the enemy. Nowadays, the Air Force has the ability to launch a drone, operate at heights of 50,000 feet, and if the circumstance dictates, vaporize the target with 800-pound laser-guided, air-to-ground munitions.

Progressive efforts have been made to maintain the tactical advantage and keep special operations Airmen and their counterparts out of harm’s way.

A quadcopter and video headset

A quad-copter drone and a first person view video headset sits on display during the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) sponsored Fast Lightweight Autonomy (FLA) competition in central Florida. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Brandon Shapiro)

Contributing to that undertaking are the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), engineering students and professors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania (UPENN), and private industry providers in autonomy and drone technology.

Together they are working on a program called Fast Lightweight Autonomy. The program is exploring non-traditional perception and autonomy methods that could enable future high-speed, autonomous UAV navigation in cluttered environments with no communication links to the operator or GPS waypoints.

Military personnel crouch as debris from a helicopter envelops them

U.S. Air Force pararescuemen with the 58th Rescue Squadron prepare for aerial transport during a personnel recovery scenario at Pond Lading Zone during Angel Thunder 17 in Tucson, Ariz., May 11, 2017. The FLA program conducts research into small autonomous drones that can be incorporated into training and then deployed in hostile environments to provide increased safety and situational awareness to battlefield Airmen. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Marianique Santos)

Today, entire operations can involve triangulating targets from geosynchronous satellites located 20,000 kilometers in outer space, and then, delivering pinpoint accuracy to any coordinate on the planet. Remarkable as that may be, based on the ever-evolving proliferation of modern warfare, terrorism and the countermeasures that coincide, conventional drone capabilities just don’t cut it.

With the quickly adaptive nature of insurgent and terrorist tactics is an uptick in urban, close-quarter, GPS denied, and dense cover scenarios. This is putting special operators in situations that no one wants to find himself in.

One organization that has a specific interest in the program and has been testing its use through commercial off-the-shelf (GPS capable and user operated) products is pararescumen with the Air Force’s Combat Search and Rescue career field.

“Anytime that you can enhance the Guardian Angel weapon system’s ability to move, shoot, and communicate, the concept is welcome,” said Capt. Ryan Ruddy, a combat rescue officer with the 308th Rescue Squadron. “One of the many methods that this is being accomplished is through the means of small, lightweight drone technology.

A man sits by five quadcopter drones

DARPA Tactical Technology Office Program Manager Jean-Charles Ledé sits among a group of fully autonomous quad-copter drones. Student and industry leaders in the field of aeronautical engineering and autonomy aim to develop and test algorithms that could reduce the amount of processing power, communications, and human intervention needed for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) missions and provide increased safety and situational awareness to battlefield Airmen. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Brandon Shapiro)

Being able to continue operations in these GPS-denied, enemy jammed or signal degraded environments, such as jungles with overhanging canopies or in multi-level high-rises with signal interference is critical and significantly reinforces the operator’s capabilities.

“The environmental challenges that special operators face during daily operations play a significant role in their safety and ability to seamlessly accomplish their objectives,” explained Jean-Charles Ledé, DARPA program manager. “Operating in unfamiliar, dense, and battle damaged areas creates many tactical disadvantages.  Our objective is to mitigate those variables by providing a system that can operate in such environments.”

A man sets a quadcopter drone under a tree near a target

Steven Quintero of Aerovironment Incorporated prepares his fully autonomous drone for the forest navigation portion of the FLA competition. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Brandon Shapiro)

From Afghanistan to Iraq and Syria, Airmen on the ground are faced with night and day differences in operational landscapes. Factor that in with the wide variety of geographical and adversarial threats – and the situation becomes a lethal cocktail.

“Imagine a special ops team that comes within a one-kilometer distance from an area of interest. Instead of sending in forces to scenarios unknown, they launch a fast, lightweight, autonomous drone,” said Ledé. “The small unmanned aircraft systems rapidly navigates at a low altitude, gathers real-time footage and mapping data, and ultimately pinpoints adversary activities and location parameters. You are now presented a significant amount of intelligence without endangering the mission.”

With such capabilities, safety, planning, and the power to quickly respond are substantiality bolstered; the application of such technology seems like a no-brainer. However, herein lies the problem.

A man works on a quadcopter drone

University of Pennsylvania Design and Mathematics Engineer Jeremy Wang reconfigures a drone. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Brandon Shapiro)

The ability to design a machine adept in sensing, navigation, and decision making requires some of the most sophisticated algorithms ever developed. Oh, and throw in the fact that these drones will operate without GPS navigation and be pack-and-play sized, and the concept becomes mindboggling; that’s more than likely the reason that this has never been accomplished anywhere in the world — until now.

“No one else in the world has ever done what we have accomplished with fully autonomous flight,” said Vijay Kumar, a professor and the dean of engineering at the UPENN. “We have been able to go into an environment that has never been seen before, where no prior map was given, without GPS guidance, and determine how to navigate at high speeds and locate a target.”

These monumental strides in technology have not come without struggle.

“There are three big challenges when it comes to the development of lightweight autonomous flight,” explained Kumar. “The first is state estimation. How do you know where you are, what orientation you are at, and at what velocity you are traveling? The second is being able to determine the environment so the robot can build a three-dimensional model of the setting for navigation. The third is being able to find the equivalent of three-dimensional roads and highways to alleviate navigational interference so that the safety of the robot is ensured.”

A group of men gather around laptop screens under a canopy

Students and professors from the University of Pennsylvania watch live footage of their autonomous drone navigating through the forest challenge portion of the FLA competition. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Brandon Shapiro)

Though all three challenges that Kumar presented pose individual and combined difficulties, the mainstay hindrance to the success of the program is the elimination of GPS capabilities — but for good reason.

“When you are going into an adversarial setting the easiest thing to jam or eliminate is GPS,” said Kumar. “For this reason, our systems are designed with the assumption that GPS is compromised.

A quadcopter drone flies through the sky

A fully autonomous quad-copter drone hovers at a training range in central Florida. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Tech. Sgt. Brandon Shapiro)

“Imagine the number of times humans have to go into environments and place their lives in danger without knowing what awaits them. With FLA soldiers, rescue workers, and humanitarian workers will never have to go into a building or enter a jungle, or whatever the situation may be, without knowing what is there. That is why, from a military perspective, the lightweight autonomy platform is a game changer.”

As identified by Kumar, this type of technology is not only a “game changer” for hostile or adversarial situations, but a broad range of conditions from multi-story building mapping, natural disaster response, and non-combat related emergency rescues.

A quadcopter drone flies into a warehouse

A fully autonomous quad-copter drone displays its ability to navigate both indoor and outdoor environments. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Brandon Shapiro)

“Take a real-world search and rescue scenario such as a lost or stranded hiker for example,” Ruddy said. “More often than not the areas are extreme and very treacherous – so eyes on target before insertion is a significant advantage. With this new technology, we are able to launch a drone, get a confirmed visual, and establish a better assessment on the individual and the safety concerns. Being a combat rescue officer, one of the greatest challenges is ensuring the safety of my team and maintaining situational awareness when time is critical. The development of the new FLA drone platform is just one more of those tools that can be used to ensure the safety of my pararescumen and present a solid piece of mind.”

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