DARPA shows UAS can operate with limited communications

By Patrick C. Miller | December 03, 2018

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is demonstrating the ability of military drones to adapt and respond to unexpected threats in areas where communications are actively being degraded.

The agency’s Collaborative Operations in Denied Environments (CODE) program develops technologies that enable drones to retain plans and autonomously accomplish missions while flying in contested airspace during combat operations.

CODE technology was demonstrated in recent tests at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. DARPA said the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) efficiently shared information, cooperatively planned and allocated mission objectives, made coordinated tactical decisions and collaboratively reacted to a dynamic, high-threat environment with minimal communication.

“The test series expanded on previously demonstrated approaches to low-bandwidth collaborative sensing and on-board planning,” said Scott Wierzbanowski, DARPA program manager for CODE. “It demonstrated the ability to operate in more challenging scenarios, where both communications and GPS navigation were denied for extended periods.”

The UAS initially operated with supervisory mission commander interaction. When communications were degraded or denied, CODE aircraft retained planned intent-to-accomplish mission objectives without live human direction. According to DARPA, the ability for CODE-enabled vehicles to interact when communications are degraded is an important step toward the program goal to conduct dynamic, long-distance engagements of highly mobile ground and maritime targets in contested or denied battlespace.

During the three-week ground and flight test series in a live/virtual/constructive (LVC) environment, up to six live and 24 virtual UAS served as surrogate strike assets, receiving mission objectives from a human mission commander. The systems then autonomously collaborated to navigate, search, localize, and engage both pre-planned and pop-up targets protected by a simulated integrated air defense system in communications- and GPS-denied scenarios.

“The demonstrated behaviors are the building blocks for an autonomous team that can collaborate and adjust to mission requirements and a changing environment,” Wierzbanowski said.

The DARPA team also has advanced the infrastructure necessary to support further development, integration, and testing of CODE as it transitions to future autonomous systems.

Achievements include incorporation of third-party autonomy algorithms into the current software build, the creation of a government repository and lab test environment for the CODE algorithms and the successful demonstration of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory White Force Network capability to provide constructive threats and effects in an LVC test environment.

DARP believes CODE’s scalable capabilities could greatly enhance the survivability, flexibility and effectiveness of unmanned air platforms, as well as reduce the development times and costs of future systems. Further development of CODE and associated infrastructure will continue under DARPA until the conclusion of the program in spring 2019, followed by full transition of the CODE software repository to Naval Air Systems Command.