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A Swarm First: Dogfighting

A wide swath of sky with six distant airplane-like drones all flying in one general direction

Two swarms of autonomous aircraft were pitted against each other in a mock dogfight between the Georgia Tech Research Institute and the Naval Postgraduate School. The engagement, which may have been the first of its kind between UAVs, allowed the teams to evaluate different combat tactics.

By John Toon

Aerial dogfighting began more than a century ago in the skies over Europe, with propeller­-driven fighter planes carried aloft on wings of wood and fabric. An event held recently in southern California could mark the beginning of a new chapter in this form of aerial combat.

In what may have been the first aerial encounter of its kind, researchers from the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) and the Naval Postgraduate School pitted two swarms of autonomous aircraft against each other over a military test facility. While the friendly encounter may not have qualified as an old-fashioned dogfight, the engagement between two swarms of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) nevertheless allowed the teams to evaluate different combat tactics.

“The ability to engage a swarm of threat UAVs with another autonomous swarm is an area of critical research for defense applications,” said Don Davis, division chief of GTRI’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems Branch. “This experiment demonstrated the advances made in collaborative autonomy and the ability of a team of unmanned vehicles to execute complex missions. This encounter will serve to advance and inform future efforts in developing autonomous vehicle capabilities.”

Each team launched 10 small propeller-driven Zephyr aircraft, though two of the aircraft experienced technical issues at launch. The UAVs were physically identical, but their computers used different autonomy logic, collaboration approaches, and communications software developed by the two institutions. For this demonstration, GPS tracking allowed each aircraft to know the location of the others. In the future, this information will be provided by on-board cameras, radars, and other sensors and payloads.

“Both teams were trying to solve the same problem of flying a large swarm in a meaningful mission, and we came up with solutions that were similar in some ways and different in others,” said Charles Pippin, a GTRI senior research scientist. “By comparing how well each approach worked in the air, we were able to compare strategies and tactics on platforms capable of the same flight dynamics.”

The foam-wing aircraft couldn’t actually shoot at one another, so a ground computer determined when an aircraft would have been in a position to attack another aircraft. The event took place in February 2017 at Camp Roberts, a California National Guard facility in Monterey County, California.

Related: Swarms of Autonomous Aerial Vehicles Test New Dogfighting Skills, Georgia Tech Research Institute

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