DARPA wants massive drone swarms

The Next Big Future – by Brian Wang

DARPA OFFSET looks to empower dismounted units by transforming how humans and autonomous swarms interact in dynamic and complex urban operations.

DARPA’s OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) envisions swarms of 250 collaborative autonomous systems providing critical insights to small ground military units in urban areas where vertical structures, tight spaces, and limited sight lines constrain communications and mobility. DARPA is soliciting proposals for its third swarm sprint, which will focus on the topics of human-swarm teaming and swarm tactics.  

Swarm sprints allow for incorporation of emerging technology and new performers throughout the life of the program. Each of five core sprints focuses on one or more of the key OFFSET thrust – or topic – areas: swarm tactics, swarm autonomy, human-swarm teaming, virtual environment, and physical testbed. Each topic emphasizes slightly different perspectives, but ultimately aims to enable breakthroughs in swarm capabilities.

“What makes autonomous swarm research challenging and compelling is the rapid pace at which swarm technologies and associated capabilities are advancing,” says Timothy Chung, program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office (TTO). “OFFSET is designed around the idea of incorporating core swarm sprints at regular intervals.”

The first of two topic areas covered in the third sprint is human-swarm teaming, which refers to the design, development, and demonstration of novel frameworks to enhance how humans interact with autonomous swarms. This topic area recognizes and seeks to address the complexity of the swarm systems themselves, as well as the cognitive, physical, and contextual needs of human teammates or tacticians when conducting urban operations.

The third swarm sprint also seeks to increase the collection of swarm tactics found in the OFFSET swarm tactics exchange, a repository of tools and tactics – or approaches – sprinters can employ. Selected swarm sprinters will design and implement additional sophisticated swarm tactics employing a heterogeneous swarm of air and ground robots, and addressing the mission context of “conducting an urban raid” within four square city blocks over a mission duration of one-to-two hours.

Swarm sprinters in either topic area, whether for human-swarm teaming or advanced swarm tactics, will integrate their technologies into one or both of the OFFSET swarm systems architectures, and will have the chance to further develop and demonstrate their innovative solutions in relevant field tests to showcase breakthrough swarm capabilities in urban settings.

DARPA also has awarded contracts to the following organizations for the second Swarm Sprint:

Carnegie Mellon University
Corenova Technologies, Inc.
Cornell University
Heron Systems Inc.
Michigan Technological University
Siemens Corporation, Corporate Technology
University of Colorado, Boulder
University of North Carolina, Charlotte

This cohort of sprinters for the second swarm will leverage existing technologies or develop new ones leading to enhancements in swarm autonomy, highlighting enriched foundations in swarm primitives and/or swarm algorithms. These contributions to the overarching OFFSET swarm systems architectures will offer additional building blocks for novel capabilities that spotlight the potentially disruptive advantages of autonomous swarms for complex urban operations.


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