By Brandon OConnorDecember 11, 2019
When the U.S. Military Academy's close combat team faced off against the U.S. Naval Academy this past weekend in Quantico, Virginia, each team was equipped with a few more tools than they typically carry into a competition.
Drones flew through the air, unmanned ground vehicles roamed the streets and communication signals were jammed. This was no ordinary small squad combat competition. It was one of two Squad with Autonomous Teammates-Challenges that take place every academic year with one occurring each semester.
SWAT-C is sponsored by the Office of Naval Research and serves as a capstone research project for cadets and midshipmen. A squad from West Point's close combat team and their Navy counterpart then serve as the beta testers and boots on the ground Soldiers who use the equipment and give feedback.
"We field the systems and then we give them feedback," Class of 2021 Cadet Parker Minotti, a member of the close combat team, said. "We're almost like the miniature client for them. They ask us what we can use to win as the warfighters."
At West Point, the capstone is a collaborative effort between the Department of Military Instruction and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. The close combat squad that uses the equipment includes 14 cadets and the research team includes 11 firsties (seniors) from a variety of academic departments.
"It's almost like rapid prototyping," said Class of 2020 Cadet Benjamin Xu, an engineering management major and member of the research team. "We have several commercial off the shelf systems we can dish out to our ground team right now, but we're also trying to build our own unmanned ground vehicles, and unmanned aerial vehicles."
For most capstone projects, cadets have both semesters to produce a product for their client, but the SWAT-C research team has only a few months to have their first iteration up and running because the first competition takes place at the end of the fall semester.
This year's team has chosen to build the vast majority of their unmanned systems from scratch instead of using off the shelf models. By building them, the cadets have more ability to customize the devices to the ground force's needs. The team's goal is to eventually make them fully autonomous, but that may end up having to be a task for a future capstone team.
The SWAT-C research team is also working with the Department of Defense's Android Tactical Assault Kit, which provides users with a satellite map where they can track friendly forces on the same network and also drop pins to show where enemies are. Think a minimap in Fortnite or Call of Duty, but in the form of a smartphone attached to a Soldier's chest or forearm.
The team is also working on devices to identify, locate and possibly jam enemy communication signals. Whether it is a drone, a jammer or the ATAK, the goal is to develop and test technology that will keep Soldiers safe in the field and make their jobs easier.
"We're basically trying to design systems that help augment and help our infantry squads gain a tactical advantage in the battlefield, especially during conflict or during a firefight," Xu said. "We're trying to build it and them to have better communications, better situational awareness and more options for lethal or nonlethal means of engagement."
Along with designing equipment, the purpose of SWAT-C is to test how Soldiers can use the equipment and what they may or may not find necessary. By taking the devices out of the lab and equipping the close combat team with them for a competition against Navy, both academy's research teams and the Office of Naval Research are able to get immediate feedback on the usefulness and downfalls of the products.
For instance, Minotti said during last year's competition they were able to use one of the loud drones not just for surveillance, but also to distract Navy by flying it over their heads. They also realized Navy was hyper focused on following the satellite maps on the ATAK at the detriment of checking their surroundings, which made them easy targets.
"It's mainly testing what an infantry squad can better use because it doesn't make much sense to spend millions of dollars and man-hours developing a system that a regular infantry squad won't know how to use or really won't help them that much," Class of 2020 Cadet Gustavo Lugo Jimenez, an electrical engineering major and member of the research team, said. "It's really fielding different types of platforms and seeing which one they find more beneficial."
This year's SWAT-C started off with a victory for the West Point team as they defeated a Marine team 2-1 in a force-on-force competition this weekend in Quantico.
The two-day competition pitted the teams against each other in a series of tactical exercises during which they were assisted by the research team's ground and aerial vehicles.