DARPA Deploys Swarms of Autonomous Robots to Carry Out Urban Raid

A swarm of autonomous robots has been deployed by researchers from DARPA to test how the technology could be used as part of an urban raid. The experiment was part of a project to find ways to map environments and gather real-time intelligence using aerial and land based robots.

In the not-so-distant future, hundreds of unmanned drones and on-the-ground rovers could swoop into an area of interest and spew crucial data to human military operators faced with limited sight lines or tasked with navigating unpredictable spaces, researchers the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) said this week.

Military experts say the aim is to transmit "critical insights to small ground units" from swarms of up to 250 collaborating autonomous robots.

A third field experiment was recently conducted at the Camp Shelby Joint Forces Training Center based in Mississippi, spearheaded by DARPA.

The program, led by Timothy Chung, is known as Offensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET).

In the most-recent test, rovers and drones were sent out into the training facility with the objective of locating items and areas of interest, marked in this instance by a form of barcode.

The robotic swarms used on-board cameras and sensors to send back information acquired from the barcodes, after which more drones were deployed to maintain environment surveillance.

In a video of the demonstration, human operators can be seen using augmented reality (AR) glasses to interact with a map of the environment created with swarm data. A previous test, in August 2019, showed how the swarms could find, analyze and surround a building.

The research teams are separated into "swarm integrators" and "swarm sprinters." Integrators create computer tools, algorithms and interfaces. Sprinters are tasked with building additional tech that is able to merge with the integrators, like AR, gesture control or haptic feedback.

"One of the exciting things that we have seen out here has been the integration that has occurred between our swarm sprinter teams and the swarm systems integrators," Chung said.

"The swarm sprinters brought a number of technologies that they have developed over the course of the past six to nine months, and they have been able to bring those technologies to bear using real robots with real data out here in the field experimentation environment."

Field experiments have been taking place every six months. Prior tests were conducted at Camp Roberts in California and the Selby Combined Arms Collective Training Facility in Georgia.

"It has been fascinating to watch the swarm sprinters, who may not have been previously exposed to realistic operational settings, begin to understand why it's so difficult to operate in dense, urban environments," Chung said in a statement.

It is not the only futuristic project being managed by DARPA, which develops emerging technology for the military with the help of defense companies, computer experts and academics.

The agency is experimenting with artificial intelligence as part of its Squad X project, which has previously teamed U.S. Marines with autonomous devices to help operators make better decisions during "time-critical" situations by providing reconnaissance and air/ground support.

Lieutenant colonel Phil Root, Squad X program manager, said last December: "We are in a race with potential adversaries to operationalize autonomy, and we have the opportunity to demonstrate autonomy in a way that we don't believe any nation in the world has demonstrated to date.

"Developing hardware and tactics that allow us to operate seamlessly within a close combat ground environment is extremely challenging, but provides incredible value."

Indeed, pocket-sized drones intended for surveillance and enemy-detection purposes were issued to military personnel being deployed to Afghanistan last year, Stars and Stripes reported.

DARPA drone swarm
The OFFSET program hosts its third field experiment in Camp Shelby, Mississippi. DARPA/YouTube/Screenshot