Alyssa Nolte

Nov 9th 2020

Swarming Behavior: Drone Swarms to Survey Unknown Environments


Biomimicry, the design and production of solutions modeled after nature, has resulted in many inventions that are helping solve human challenges. From Kingfisher birds inspiring the nose cap design of Shinkansen bullet trains to an optoelectronic camouflage system mimicking the skins of cephalopods, nature-based technologies allow humans to develop solutions that once seemed impossible.

In recent years, engineers have developed recoverable or expendable autonomous systems that can imitate animal swarming to search unknown territories and perform complex tasks. These robotic platforms — drone swarms — can organize themselves into different flight patterns or spread out and work individually to complete a mission. Companies across multiple industries have found practical uses for swarming technology to help solve problems in challenging environments.

Urban Combat Operations

Current mission operations in urban settings rely on dismounted soldiers who have limited situational awareness of their surroundings. City landscapes pose many disadvantages that can leave warfighters vulnerable and prevent them from being readily available when needed. Soldiers must have the ability to look around corners and see through doors to see if any threats, like insurgents, are lurking in a surprise trap.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) program aims to improve small-unit urban combat operations through enhanced manned-unmanned teaming with over 250 small air and ground vehicles. OFFSET utilizes low-cost air and ground vehicles that can operate as a heterogeneous swarm to achieve diverse mission objectives. In the future, these swarming platforms will offer more eyes and ears on the battlefield to detect and combat threats.

“Swarm technology enables warfighters to solve problems in complex environments more efficiently and creatively,” said Erin Cherry, program manager in Emerging Capabilities Development at Northrop Grumman, a Swarm Systems Integrator for OFFSET. “Attritable, unmanned platforms collaborate as a swarm to help warfighters asymmetrically gain an understanding of a situation, make decisions, and take actions.”

OFFSET swarming technology is built on top of Robot Operating System. The vehicles used for swarming are the Uvify IFO-S air vehicles and the Aion R1 ground vehicles. Each vehicle has sensors and algorithms for behaviors like coordination, collision avoidance, and path planning. Intra-agent communication between platforms is enabled with a mesh network.

OFFSET incorporates artificial intelligence and cooperative autonomy in a variety of ways from object recognition and classification to multi-agent swarm tactics. A human operator defines a high level plan with an advanced sketch-based user interface and then the swarm coordinates their actions to efficiently perform the mission.

Space Exploration

Researchers at California State University Northridge are turning to much smaller, insect-like drone swarms for extraterrestrial applications. Essentially, these robots will be dropped into unexplored space territories to autonomously complete tasks they’re given. The platforms will be able to problem solve in austere environments and adjust to challenges, like reorganizing their formations to accommodate the loss of any individual systems.

These rover swarms are an alternative to larger space exploration programs. Their built-in redundancy allows for more opportunity to complete the mission, whereas if a larger rover encountered a fatal error, the mission would end in failure. The swarms can also self-assemble into smaller groups to survey more ground and accomplish multiple tasks, which would take a single rover significantly more time to perform.

Expendable insect-like swarming systems will give researchers a better method to collect planetary data that could explain the many mysteries of the universe.

Disaster Relief

As recent wildfires wreaked havoc across the globe, emergency responders are turning to swarming technology to help extinguish rampant fires and for search and rescue operations. Drone swarms use artificial intelligence and machine learning to map the spread of the fire with points of interest that need immediate attention. These systems will provide emergency responders with a situational awareness they have lacked due to hostile conditions of the environment.

The autonomous vehicles can deliver real-time imagery to emergency responders that will equip them with the most accurate information. Swarms are able to maneuver through tight areas that reconnaissance helicopters cannot fit through and can fly low enough to capture accurate footage. These images can help identify potential openings for fire fighters who need to be on the ground fighting off flames. Some drone swarms are also equipped with thermal imaging cameras that can detect the location of stranded individuals through heavy smoke.

Northrop Grumman and Carnegie Mellon University have recently partnered to sponsor five artificial intelligence research projects that seek to address different aspects of natural disaster response. The projects aim to improve small unmanned aerial vehicle rescue capabilities and human-machine communications. The initiative – titled Strategic, Operational and Tactical Emergency Recovery through Innovations in AI (SOTERIA) – supports the Department of Defense’s push for better humanitarian aid and disaster relief technologies.

Swarming technology allows emergency responders to better survey life-threatening areas at a further distance and respond quicker to the wildfire. These robotic platforms could potentially minimize the damage of natural disasters and reduce the cost of the overall rescue operation.

The potential these drone swarms provide will change how we approach disaster relief, space exploration, and urban operations. With this technology, humans will be able to survey unknown territories and problem solve in a much more strategic way through advanced manned-unmanned teaming.

Interested in working on the forefront of emerging capabilities? See how you can fit at Northrop Grumman.