DARPA claims drone autonomy program an undeniable success
Six tigersharks and 14 ghosts took to the sky above Yuma, Arizona. The tigers were drones specially outfitted as part of DARPA’s program CODE, or “Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment,” and the ghosts were virtual doubles of the tigersharks, following along with the tiger drones in simulation. The exercise was the capstone in a program designed to teach drones how to work together in the absence of modern communications infrastructure.
CODE is, as the full name suggests, about operating in those denied environments, regardless of how they are denied. DARPA started this program in 2015, and has been ramping up the program for a conclusion in spring 2019. The end product is a bundle of, well, code that is government-owned and -designed airframe-agnostic, so that the Navy and Air Force can adapt it as they see fit to their existing platforms.
This isn’t the first time the Pentagon’s had to design drones without the aid of satellite infrastructure. Recently published documents from the National Reconnaissance Office’s D-21 program show the challenges of making drones work without direct control. Virtually all aspects of the technology have improved since then, but it’s still informative for how a drone was supposed to operate on its own in hostile territory. CODE takes advantage of modern systems, and also has the drones rely on each other for communication relays, input and navigation when cut off from external communications and navigational aids.
The end result is a new sort of software infrastructure, a tool to iterate and improve upon that lets drones work together to meet mission goals without the need for a dedicated human pilot to remotely control each vehicle. Autonomy is designed and sold primarily as a way to overcome jamming and continue operations in denied environments, but it’s also a labor saving (or labor-amplifying) tool. Mostly autonomous swarms mean dozens of vehicles can be overseen by the same crew it once took to pilot a single craft, and that has huge implications for filling the skies of future wars.
Since 1977, NASC has provided innovative solutions to the Department of Defense, federal research institutions, and the commercial sector in their quest for technologically advanced answers to global challenges. Our specialized products, support, and services are currently being used in multiple operational theaters around the world. NASC is proud to offer the products, training, and services vital to our military and civilian customers. NASC areas of expertise include Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Design, Manufacturing and Flight Services, UAV Ground Control Stations, Anti-Submarine Warfare Technology, Advanced Acoustics and Sensor Development, Persistent Surveillance Systems Services, Combat Systems Development and Support, and Information Technology Services.