FORT BENNING, Ga. (June 12, 2013) -- Last week, the Georgia Tech Research Institute and the Maneuver Battle Lab conducted multiple tests of unmanned aerial systems at the McKenna Military Operations in Urban Terrain site.

A variety of tests were performed, all focused on improving the systems' ability to be autonomous and to work in collaboration with other UAS.

The aircraft used for the tests were built by GTRI using off-the-shelf airframes and autopilot systems.

GTRI later added an autonomous mission payload computer to enable the aircraft to run its autonomous behaviors and algorithms.

Because of that, a representative from the Maneuver Battle Lab said the real interest for the Maneuver Center of Excellence was not the aircraft, but the algorithms.

"Our interest is what's inside the aircrafts, and the algorithms they're testing to enable that autonomous flight," said Harry Lubin, chief of the experimentation branch of the MBL.

During the week, the aircraft demonstrated several capabilities.

One was the ability to perform squad formations without human input or interaction. Once an aircraft is designated as the leader, other aircraft can communicate and arrange themselves into a wingman formation autonomously.

Aircraft also underwent testing in which they were given a number of checkpoints to visit, and were allowed to calculate which specific aircraft should visit each checkpoint.
Initial testing has also begun on capabilities that would allow aircraft to observe one another and learn which UAS is best suited for future tasks.

"What we'd like to see and we envision in the future is a situation where these aircraft have a higher degree of autonomy, and you can task them with high-level missions," said Charles Pippin, a senior GTRI scientist. "From there, the aircraft would be able to negotiate amongst themselves to determine which aircraft is most suited for each task."

In addition to the military applications of the systems, Pippin said there could also be applications for the civilian sector, namely in emergency situations.

"In a disaster scenario, such as after Hurricane Katrina, if there were multiple UAS assets available, you could get them to quickly work together and perform autonomous missions to search for survivors," he said.

The aircraft are able to communicate using point-to-point technology, meaning transmissions are sent directly, rather than flowing through a centralized ground station.
This allows one Soldier to be assigned to multiple aircraft, rather than requiring each UAS to have an operator.

"An eventual goal of this type of research is to have humans in the loop, but very minimally and in a supervisory role rather than in a low-level operations role," Pippin said. "We want to remove the load from the human beings and allow them to supervise the aircraft. When the aircraft need assistance, they can request that from the humans, and that's where we want to move things."

Lubin said allowing the UAS to fly autonomously would help lessen the strain on the combat force.

"The current capabilities we have fielded come with a price," Lubin said. "They provide a great capability for reconnaissance, but we have to pull our Soldiers from the units to control these unmanned systems. The more unmanned systems we have, the more of our combat power we deplete. So, the more we can get these systems operating on their own, without having a direct controller and operating collaboratively, the more that will increase our combat power."

While GTRI has made strides in autonomous UAS research, Pippin said the technology is still in development.

"This is very much a research-in-progress project," Pippin said. "We've been working with this particular project for about three years now. … As we perform more and more tests, we shake the bugs out of our technology. That's why we're here this week; to find the problems and weak links and continue to improve the technology."

The autonomous UAS research is a GTRI initiative, with the MBL in a supporting role.
However, Lubin said the research is helping the maneuver force to understand the capabilities of unmanned systems, something that is becoming more and more important.

"Normally, we have the advantage as far as unmanned systems go, but the battlefield is now becoming proliferated with other unmanned systems," Lubin said. "We've got to look at addressing that not only in our doctrine on how we deal with unmanned systems, but also in our training, because it's been a long time since the U.S. Army has had to look up. Normally, we have air superiority wherever we go. But, at the tactical level, we can no longer make the assumption that all unmanned systems are friendly."

The partnership also has benefits for GTRI, as Fort Benning is able to provide a testing facility that is not available in Atlanta.

"Specifically, the range has a lot of benefits for us," Pippin said.

"We have the ability to fly multiple systems simultaneously, whereas we're not able to do that due to FAA regulations outside of Fort Benning."