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​US Air Force envisions “Ender’s Game” scenario for swarming UAVs

The US Air Force wants to go beyond the traditional ground control station controlling a single aircraft and manage swarms of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) with the wave of a hand.

Col Brandon Baker envisions a future where swarms of UAVs operate independent of a ground station, he told an audience at the annual Association for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Systems International unmanned defense systems conference held outside Washington this week.

To do that, Baker reached out to the US Defense Department’s Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx), as well as the gaming industry, and gave them an “Ender’s Game” scenario to solve.

“They’re going to create a presentation where it’s going to be a cross between Ender’s Game and Minority Report, so that we can change how we command and control small UAS,” he says. “And whatever that cell looks like, it’s not a ground control station anymore, it’s a command and control cell, that’s what we need to start thinking about and developing.”

The UAV teams would execute mainly an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) mission, with jamming, electronic warfare and electronic attack capabilities, but kinetics could come into play later on, he says. Baker foresees a gradual climb toward full, autonomy for swarming UAVs, at least for an ISR mission, but kill missions would require human intervention.

“When I say cognitive autonomy, what I’m talking about is untethered aircraft, small UAS, from the network,” Baker says. “I don’t want it to be a Hollywood movie where if you can defeat the network, everything just drops out of the sky.”

Ultimately, the small UAVs would reach a level of cognitive autonomy that allows them to sense their environment and make decisions during a mission. If an enemy or mechanical failure strikes part of the swarm, the UAVs would heal its group by understanding which vehicles, sensors and payloads remain in the fight. The swarm would then regroup and meet its objective or at least be able to degrade the enemy, Baker says.

Meanwhile, the USAF recently established an memorandum of understanding with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to expand the scope of the Gremlins programme. The initial concept for the programme was based on aerial recovery of swarms of small UAVs by a Lockheed C-130, but the UAVs had no established mission set while they flew. The MOU allows the USAF to use Gremlins as a testbed for the “Ender’s Game” scenario and establish a network that’s separate from a ground control station. As the USAF expands the scope of Gremlins, it could include not only aerial recovery but also trial landing on ships and on the ground.