LEFT: The Fast Lightweight Autonomy (FLA) program is exploring nontraditional machinevision and autonomy methods to empower high-speed navigation in cluttered environments for small, autonomous UAVs. BELOW: The OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) program focuses on a future capability for small infantry units to enable them to deploy and operate 250 or more mini- or micro-UAVs and UGVs in complex urban environments.
requires having to break people’s familiar and ingrained mentality of how we interact with smaller numbers of vehicles,” Chung said. “Think of the number of different tactics we could employ with larger numbers of vehicles. Those 250-unit swarms are not that far away.” The subterranean domain, perhaps the most unsung among all of the warfighting domains, was important in both Vietnam and Iraq. In the spirit of previous DARPA challenges, the agency has issued a Subterranean (SubT) Challenge to both accelerate an entire technology category and catalyze the formation of a research community to do just that. The capabilities the SubT Challenge calls on participants to deliver include rapidly navigating, searching, and mapping underground environments. In addition to its military applications, the potential payoffs of such technology range from finding trapped miners in a mine collapse to diagnosing specific problems in damaged storm drain systems and utility tunnels to mapping out natural caves. “Caves are unpredictable and unstructured, but provide a natural test bed for assessing how well the systems we hope the participants deliver meet the various capabilities at the heart of the Challenge,” Chung said. “We find, time and again, that the geology and configuration of rock formations, and the location of water tables, can change only a short distance away as the environment changes. We want to inspire competitors to address all three domains [human-made tunnels, underground urban spaces, and natural cave networks] and come up with system solutions – a federated solution of platforms – that can work across unpredictable environments.” Organizers of the SubT Challenge hope the effort will deliver new and powerful technology options in a wide range of arenas, among them mine safety, infrastructure inspections, GPS-free navigation, and communications – often with jamming and out of line of sight. “Many of our systems, even UAVs, tend to be thought of in a two-dimensional environment, where subterranean contexts may have an inclined shaft or a deep, dark hole,” said Chung. “Competitors in this Challenge will have to think through how to deal with such encounters.” It will be years before any seeds of technology that emerge from the SubT Challenge can grow into actual new features of the technosphere. Perhaps the autonomous technology most frequently in the news these days is self-driving cars – both their amazing feats on the road and their accidents, some of them tragic. But while this mix of success with some failure
has raised questions about whether the technology is sufficiently sophisticated and reliable to be unleashed on millions of public streets and roads, the technology’s track record has convinced Department of Defense (DOD) decision-makers that it’s ready for primetime in military applications. “The questions raised are relevant; these are issues DOD has and will continue to take seriously,” Chung said, adding that the DOD has issued directive 3000.09, providing guidance regarding what decisions autonomous vehicles can and cannot make, including ones regarding the use of potentially lethal onboard weapons. “We have to hold our systems to a high level of scrutiny because just as with driverless cars, lives will be on the line. The same type of reliability we care about in the military is of interest to the commercial market,” he added. There also is a confluence of interest between the military and commercial sectors when it comes to interoperability and compatibility. “Both industry and government can step up to help that in the future,” Chung said. “The commercial sector has to rely on market demand, but the stars are aligning between the interests of DOD and the needs for greater autonomy and robotic systems on the commercial side, which is a great development.” At the heart of DARPA’s autonomy portfolio are various levels of artificial intelligence (AI) – from the level of basic machine learning to that