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NPS, Academic Partners Take to the Skies in First-Ever UAV Swarm Dogfight

By Javier Chagoya

A swarm of unmanned aerial vehicles get into a self-determined formation during swarm vs. swarm field experimentation at Camp Roberts, Calif., Feb. 16. The match between researchers at NPS and Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) is considered the first-ever swarm on swarm autonomous drone dogfight.

For NPS Associate Professor Ray Buettner, it feels like a historic occasion.

"It is always difficult to know the impact of an event on the future. When the Wright brothers flew for the first time at Kitty Hawk it is unlikely that they or the folks watching could imagine that manned flight would take humanity to the moon only 66 years later," Buettner said. "As we watch the first 'dogfight' between swarms animated by different forms of artificial intelligence, I am compelled to wonder where swarming technology will lead us six decades from now."

The match is between two university teams that are well aware of the each other's reputation in the field, NPS and GTRI, but this contest isn't about bragging rights. Rather, this experimentation is to test the capability of autonomy and to learn how behaviors between each of their team's aircraft react as they penetrate the opponent's air space.

In short, the goal of this research, according to researchers and institutional leadership alike, is in the science, to answer questions in optimization and controls, and to envision how these capabilities advance the warfighter's effectiveness.

"One of the only ways to find out if the ideas we have built in labs and in experimental test beds actually work, is to bring them outside into something that closely approximates how they might perform in an actual warfighting setting," explained NPS Provost and Academic Dean Dr. Steven Lerman, on hand to witness the experimentation first-hand. "This is an outstanding example of the translation of great research into experimental practice."

Dr. Kevin Jones, who coordinated the launch and recovery for the NPS team in addition to being lead aeronautical engineer, said one of most significant lessons learned from the event was in the ability to plug and play behaviors in a live environment.

"NPS, and our research partners, demonstrated the ability to allow any third party to develop swarm behaviors and to implement them in a (compatible) software stack, permitting them to be loaded into a swarm that can engage in combat behaviors," Jones explained. "Going back to the original Swarm vs. Swarm Aerial Combat Challenge objective, all of the pieces exist to support the execution of a national grand challenge event that would eventually enable us to rapidly identify and transition swarm tactics and maneuvers from the NPS environment to more operational environments."

For more information about this landmark achievement, check out the full story on the
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February 2017

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