Cooperative Multirobot Systems for Military Applications

Abstract

Purpose of Review

We seek to review recent and current research efforts by the US military in the field of robotics. We present background on research arms and current overall strategy in developing autonomous and robotic systems. We also discuss specific projects undertaken by the different research arms and service branches.

Recent Findings

The US military has widely used remote piloted systems for 25 years. That has shifted to systems that are capable of autonomous deployment and navigation but are overseen by human operators. Current research thrusts include increasing the amount of decision-making these systems are capable of and allowed to make. Recent research also focuses on developing new and novel tactics enabled by autonomous systems and ensuring that these systems can work well with each other and with human teammates.

Summary

Robotics and autonomous systems are central to the long-term plans of the U.S. Military. Each service branch is pursuing research according to its mission and culture. Multirobot systems and increased levels of autonomy are key research thrusts, though human oversight will remain for the near future.

Introduction

Robotic technologies will continue to fill an increasingly wide variety of roles in the future. Robots have and will continue to replace humans for some mundane tasks that are too dull or repetitive to fully engage the human attention and tasks that are too dangerous to responsibly risk human health and life. We are moving into a new era, in which robots work alongside human and robot counterparts to increase productivity and precision while reducing costs. This revolution is occurring in manufacturing and the service industry; it is on the horizon in transportation, shipping and delivery, and more.

To date, industry has been an ideal application for automation—by tightly controlling the work through assembly lines and the use of fixtures, minimal perception and feedback are needed. This tightly controlled environment has also been well suited for extension to human-robot collaborative tasks. Highways, city streets, and airspace are much more chaotic, but they still operate by a codified set of rules, and robots and autonomous vehicles are heading towards wide deployment in these areas.

At the far end of the complexity spectrum lie military applications, with diverse tasks ranging from front-line combat, reconnaissance, and strategic planning to logistics supply, vehicle maintenance, and construction. By its very nature, the military faces adversarial interference that attempts to disrupt even noncombat operations. Nevertheless, robotic technologies are increasingly applied in the military to address many of these challenges for the same reasons automation is used in industry. Furthermore, the military leadership over the last two decades has realized the increasing role that robotics and autonomous systems will play in the future and have been taking active steps towards developing systems and technologies to meet these needs.

Military systems must undergo rigorous development and testing before they are fielded. Given the complexity of the environments and applications they will face, military robotic systems are largely still in the research and testing phase. In addition, there are significant ethical and legal considerations regarding robots applied to combat roles as fully autonomous systems. Robots in roles where lethality is the intended outcome will work under human supervision for the near future. Indeed, this is codified in current the US Department of Defense (DoD) policy [1•]. Human-guided robot systems have been widely used in surveillance, targeting, and use of lethal force. Fully autonomous robot systems have been used in surveillance and supply delivery tasks. Modern unmanned systems, such as the Reaper and Gray Eagle, have logged millions of flight hours under remote piloting and are capable of autonomous takeoff, navigation, and landing. These systems still require multiple human operators for each unmanned unit, even when under operating without direct human command. Current efforts are focusing on altering these arrangements such that one human can operate many unmanned systems, or multiple humans can work with multiple unmanned/robotic systems.

In the future, multirobot systems will come to the fore. Large-scale swarms can be applied to combat roles to enable novel tactics. Attrition rates can be tolerated for small, cheap unmanned vehicles that would never be considered for manned or even current unmanned vehicles. Such systems will enable novel combat tactics, actions, and capabilities that are not currently possible.

We present a short survey of recent and active research and deployment of robotic technologies and systems carried out and/or funded by the US military. We focus on multirobot systems when possible. The descriptions in this paper are centered on the developments of the United States and are limited to publicly disclosed projects and information that is available in the public domain. As recent developments in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and computing have enabled rapid growth in capability of robotic systems, this paper will describe military research programs and deployed technology over the past decade (2010–2020), in addition to current programs and their anticipated developments over the coming years.

In Section 3, we will first briefly discuss the recent strategy of the US DoD in carrying out the robotic research. Then, we discuss the current research arms in US DoD and the approaches each is taking in robotic research. We also introduce the important concept of the Technology Readiness Level (TRL). We will organize the remainder of our discussions along the TRL. In Section 4, we present some current efforts by US DoD at TRL 1–4. Section 5 presents current efforts at TRL 5–7, and we discuss a few robotic systems that are already deployed in Section 6.

Robotic Research in the US Military

The US military seeks to develop autonomous multirobot systems to serve alongside human teammates. There are numerous envisioned examples, depending on the service branch. Soldiers on the ground could be aided by wheeled or quadruped robots carrying equipment and UAVs providing reconnaissance and targeting assistance. Swarms of small UAVs could disrupt enemy radar and attack air or ground targets while autonomous fighter crafts serve as wingmen to human pilots. Unmanned surface and underwater vessels can patrol waters, intercept ships, escort vessels, or search for and detonate mines. In this section, we briefly discuss the different research arms of the US military and its overarching strategy in terms of robotics and autonomous systems.

Roadmaps and Strategy

Research into robotics by the military arguably dates back to World War I, with the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane. While the Automatic Airplane never saw deployment, it was the precursor to modern cruise missiles and remote-piloted unmanned aircraft. This led to cruise missiles deployed by multiple nations in World War II, initially guided by gyroscopes and planned trajectories, and eventually sophisticated guidance systems using radar, digital maps, and satellite guidance. In 1995, the United States deployed the MQ-1 and RQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft, piloted remotely by human operators.

In 2002, the US DoD produced the first in a series of documents identifying existing needs and challenges in unmanned systems and outlining the strategy of DoD and the service branches over the following 25 years. These documents have been updated approximately every three years. The most recent is “Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap 2017-2042” [2••]. This document highlighted four overarching themes: Interoperability, Autonomy, Secure Network, and Human-Machine Collaboration.

  • Interoperability seeks to ensure the systems created by the various service branches, and their individual directorates and departments can work together. It seeks to eliminate duplicative efforts, establish common standard and baselines, and improve modularity, reparability, data sharing, etc.

  • Autonomy focuses on artificial intelligence and machine learning, with a particular focus on trust by human operators and teammates. The autonomy theme also considers the important issues regarding the use of lethal force by unmanned systems, particularly the future capability of unmanned systems to decide to engage without human oversight.

  • Secure Network addresses the fact that unmanned systems are particularly dependent on information technology to carry out their missions and that they are at risk of cyberattack eliminating communication networks and access to GPS. Data stored and transmitted between unmanned systems must remain secure to interception or data theft, and networks must remain stable even as data demands grow.

  • Human-Machine Collaboration focuses on effective human-machine interfaces for human operators to receive information and issue commands. It also focuses on effective human-machine teams, developing effective team compositions and deployment strategies to capture the strengths of humans and unmanned systems.

The US DoD has also established 17 Communities of Interest (COI), including an Autonomy COI. The Autonomy COI has recognized five technical challenges: (1) Human/Autonomous Systems Interaction and Collaboration, (2) Scalable Teaming of Multiple Autonomous Systems, (3) Machine Perception, Reasoning, and Intelligence, (4) Test, Evaluation, Verification, and Validation, and (5) Foundational AI. Service branches can have their own codified strategies and priorities as well, e.g., the US Army’s Modernization Strategy [3••] and the Robotic and Autonomous Systems Strategy [4].

Technology Readiness Level

The Technology Readiness Level (TRL) formally presents the relative maturity of technology over the course of development. Initially developed by NASA in the 1970’s, the TRL concept was adopted by the US DoD in the 2000’s [5]. The US DoD TRL scale rates the maturity from a scale of 1 to 9. TRL 1 corresponds to basic scientific research and early application analysis, and TRL 9 refers to technology that has been successfully fielded in mission operations [6]. One important transition occurs from TRL 4 (component validation in the laboratory) to TRL 5 (component validation in a relevant environment). Another is from TRL 6 to TRL 7, when a full system prototype transitions from testing in a relevant environment to an operational environment. Systems at TRL 6 or below are considered too immature for deployment. Due to the US DoD policy for autonomous weapon systems, robotic and autonomous systems at TRL 8 and 9 involve strict human involvement. TRL is somewhat subjective and rarely is a particular system officially designated as being at a particular level.

Service Branches

The major surface branches of the US Armed Forces have independent research labs pursuing a wide range of topics. Each of these agencies or departments conducts research through a combination of internal and extramural efforts in collaboration with academia and industry.

  • The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is the US DoD’s cross-service advanced research agency. DARPA was founded in 1957, after the launch of Sputnik, to make key investments in advanced technology which enable the United States to be the “initiator rather than the victim of strategic technical surprise” [7]. DARPA executes a diverse set of programs, including several high TRL traditional programs in multirobot systems, such as SquadX and OFFSET, in addition to the Subterranean Challenge, where teams compete for prize money.

  • US Air Force research efforts date back to 1945. The current framework was formed in 1997, when 13 separate labs were consolidated into the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) [8]. AFRL currently consists of eight directorates, one wing, and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), each dedicated to a different focus of research topics or stages of development. Several directorates include unmanned and robotic systems in their purview, including Aerospace Systems, Munitions, and Space Vehicles Directorates.

  • The Naval Research Lab (NRL) traces its beginnings to 1923 [9], and the Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research opened in 2012. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) was established in 1946 and currently oversees NRL. ONR and NRL pursue a range of research topics. In the field of robotics, they pursue research in autonomous air, surface, and underwater vehicles, as well as notable research into humanoid robotics.

  • Research and development for the US Army are conducted in the Combat Capabilities and Development Command (CCDC). The basic and applied research component of CCDC, the Army Research Laboratory (ARL), was formed in 1992 but traces its lineage to the Ballistics Research Laboratory, which computed trajectories for artillery in World Wars I and II, later contributing to the development of the first general-purpose computers to improve this process [10]. Lower TRL robotic research efforts are originated and developed at ARL and then transitioned to engineering development centers within CCDC such as the Ground Vehicle Systems Center (GVSC) for further refinement to higher TRL.

Low TRL (1–4)

Air Force

The Air Force Skyborg program envisions autonomous wingmen flying alongside piloted fighter aircraft. Smaller, lower-cost autonomous vehicles can provide support, countermeasures, and additional engagement to aircraft such as the F-35 and F-15EX, granting force multiplication while reducing pilot workload. The Air Force plans to test Skyborg prototypes in 2021, with higher TRL tests in 2023 [11]. Relatedly, the Air Force announced a planned dogfight between a human pilot and AI pilot to be held in 2021 [12]. An AI pilot recently dominated a human pilot in a series of dogfights in a purely simulated environment, but there are many doubts on how that performance could translate to real combat scenario [13].

The Air Force Perdix program focused on swarms of low-cost micro air vehicles (MAVs) with approximately 12-in. wingspan (300 mm). Designed to be air-launched from fighter aircraft, swarms of up to one hundred Perdix drones perform collective decision-making and decentralized formation flight to perform missions without communication with a ground station. Potential missions include surveillance and reconnaissance, jamming communications, disrupting radar systems, providing ad hoc communications networks, or as munitions [14,15,16].

Navy

The Navy, working with multiple universities, developed a humanoid robot as part of the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR) project. Dubbed Autonomous Shipboard Humanoid (ASH), the robot is intended to navigate the cramped and complicated passages of a navy ship, including door sills, ladders, and stairs that would stymie a wheeled robot. It must also operate tools and mechanisms designed for human hands [17, 18].

Army

The US Army Next-Generation Combat Vehicle (NGCV) cross-functional team calls for blue prototype robotic or optionally manned fighting vehicles to be developed in three variants of light, medium, and heavy. NGCV assets are envisioned to be deployed in advance of manned formations to reduce risk to human warfighters as contact is made with enemy formations. Initially teleoperated, additional autonomous capabilities are in development based upon maturing technologies coming out of the Ground Vehicle Systems Center (GVSC) CoVeR program and the CCDC Army Research Laboratory’s AI for Mobility and Maneuver essential research program [19].

High TRL (5, 6)

DARPA

DARPA’s SquadX program seeks to develop heterogeneous robot technology to work alongside dismounted infantry units to achieve significant advantages over adversaries. SquadX provides its human teammates with increased situational awareness and expanded battle space and area of influence. These technologies provide a dismounted infantry squad with similar tools available to a mounted squad without overburdening human teammates. Defensively, SquadX incorporates distributed threat detection into a fused representation including physical, electronic warfare, and cyberthreats. Conversely, on the offensive side, SquadX can also project coordinated electronic warfare to disrupt enemy command and control, in addition to providing precision coordinated direct and indirect fires with human supervision. SquadX has been demonstrated in a mock village raid operating alongside a team of marines.

DARPA’s OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) [20] program seeks insights into tactics for small ground military units accompanied by heterogeneous mixed air and ground swarms of over 250 autonomous assets. OFFSET is organized in a series of sprints; each sprint is focused on different aspects of swarm development, including swarm autonomy, human-swarm teaming, swarm perception, swarm networking, and swarm logistics. The operational theater of this program is complex urban environments, with a focus on handling a diverse set of missions. The desired outcome of this program is to develop novel tactics and explore the potential for how swarm technologies can be incorporated into military operations.

The DARPA Subterranean Challenge (SubT Challenge) aims to develop technologies to augment military and rescue operations in underground settings. Due to the unique characteristics of subterranean operations, the SubT Challenge focuses development on four areas: autonomy, perception [21], networking (communications), and mobility. The subterranean operating environment is represented in the SubT Challenge in three circuit events: man-made tunnels such as mines, urban underground such as subways, and natural caves. A final capstone event will combine aspects from all three of these operating environments. At each event, teams are required to deploy one or more robots within the challenge course to locate and report the position of a set of objects of interest; their score is determined by the accuracy of these reports. Due to the variety of terrain and the large scale and limited time for exploration, all competing teams have chosen to deploy multiple robots, and most have assembled a heterogeneous makeup of both air and ground platforms. The use of heterogeneity in team composition is useful in the SubT challenge, as the mobility of a UAV is necessary to locate all scoring objects, while the scale and size of the courses calls for supplementation with ground platforms due to endurance limits of current small-scale UAV technology.

The DARPA Heterogeneous Airborne Reconnaissance Team (HART) [22] incorporates surveillance data from current and experimental manned and unmanned aircraft and sensors to build a georegistered video of areas of interest. This system consists of an interface for use by infantry, which can retrieve most recent aerial surveillance data of a specific region or task unmanned aircraft and/or emplaced sensors to collect real-time intelligence data to support ongoing operations. This program has been demonstrated in a field exercise approaching TRL-7 [23].

Air Force

The Air Force Golden Horde project upgrades existing self-guided munitions to enable them to communicate and alter their target selection [24]. Range testing was scheduled to begin in late 2020 (as of the time of this writing). Coordinated target selection proceeds from a predefined “playbook” and does not represent AI or ML decision-making [25]. Two munitions are currently in the Golden Horde system: a Collaborative Small Diameter Bomb and a Collaborative Miniature Air-Launched Decoy.

Navy

The Office of Naval Research developed the Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing (CARACaS) to enable a variety of surface vehicles to operate autonomously. CARACaS includes an advanced perception system, fusing optical and radar signals and advanced decision-making, navigation, and control capability. First demonstrated in 2014, CARACaS controlled 13 patrol crafts to carry out mock interception and escort missions with manned vessels [26, 27].

The Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) set a record of 50 UAVs controlled by a single user in 2015 [28]. This led to a series of dogfight-style competitions of 50 vs. 50 UAVs between the NPS and Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) [29]. The dogfights have been used to test and quantify the performance of different strategies for control of the swarms to attack and defend targets of interest [30].

The ONR Low-Cost Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Swarming Technology (LOCUST) program developed swarms of dozens of small, low-cost UAVs, deployed from specialized canon-like launchers at a rate up to 1 drone every 1.33 s [31]. First demonstrated in 2015 launched from ground-based launchers, it was later demonstrated launched from F/A-18 Hornets. The UAVs can maintain formation and loiter while conducting reconnaissance with an array of sensors.

The US Navy has recently demonstrated autonomous mine countermeasures to detect and destroy underwater mines, a dangerous task currently undertaken by manned vessels and human divers [32]. A small autonomous surface vessel, equipped with advanced sonar systems, can patrol a suspected minefield, then detect and localize mines. A Barracuda Expendable Mine Neutralizer, launched from a nearby ship, then navigates to the suspected mine and detonates it.

Army

The Army’s Ground Vehicle Systems Center is developing expedient leader-follower technology to build a robotic convoy vehicle system to partially automate the logistical resupply mission [33, 34]. In recent armed conflicts, significant allied casualties were inflicted during logistical resupply missions. By leveraging self-driving automotive research and incorporating a human convoy leader, large numbers of autonomous convoy follower vehicles can achieve the necessary logistical supply bandwidth while greatly reducing the risk to human personnel. Currently, this program is constructing prototypes for evaluation on Army supply missions to accompany large-scale live fire exercises.

Deployed TRL (8, 9)

There are few autonomous robotic systems currently deployed by the US Military and very few “cooperative” multirobot/vehicle systems. Most are currently designed to be cooperative with human operators or forces in the field. This is largely due to the Department of Defense Directives that prohibit autonomous weapon systems, defined as “A weapon system that, once activated, can select and engage targets without further intervention by a human operator” [1•]. Semiautonomous weapon systems, which require a human operator to select a target, are allowed but clearly require a human in (or on) the loop. The different defense branches also vary in their cultural preference for human operators. An unmanned aircraft, such as the RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-1C Gray Eagle, is capable of autonomous takeoff and landing and autonomous navigation. The Global Hawk is a high-altitude surveillance aircraft, which is well suited to the US military’s view of using autonomous systems; nevertheless, it is primarily intended to have human operators in the loop and is frequently piloted. The Reaper and Gray Eagle can carry air-to-ground weapons and must operate as a semiautonomous system with human operators in the loop.

The CQ-10 SnowGoose is a small, fully autonomous aircraft used to deliver supplies to US Special Operations forces in the field. The SnowGoose can carry out GPS-guided missions for extended periods over distances as far as 150 km and has seen use in Afghanistan and Iraq. The MQ-8 Fire Scout is an unmanned helicopter, capable of autonomous takeoff, landing, and navigation, used by the US Navy for surveillance and targeting. The Fire Scout has seen use in Afghanistan and northern Africa and has been tested as a weapon platform in addition to its current use in surveillance.

The US Army has used teams of manned AH-64 Apache helicopters and unmanned Gray Eagles. Previously, the Gray Eagles were operated remotely from a ground station and could provide data and video to the Apache crew. Recently, Apaches were upgraded to allow them to request temporary control of the Gray Eagles and directly issue flight path commands [35].

Ethical and Social Considerations

With deployed robotic weapon systems, current US military doctrine has mandated that a human is always needed to initiate a lethal action. While this requirement is clearly appropriate for the technology of today, it is not hard to imagine a future in which sufficient capability or sufficient necessity is present for a nation to justify deploying a fully autonomous weapon system. As we approach this event, it is important that we think about the ethical implications of the research and development of autonomous weapon systems.

There are many arguments against autonomous weapons, ranging from the individual collateral damage caused from imperfect classification algorithms confounding enemy combatants from civilian noncombatants, to global societal changes brought about by lowering the human cost of, and therefore the threshold for, prosecuting or continuing a war. By removing the consequences of war, we may inadvertently subvert the political process in favor of conflict. This may exacerbate asymmetric conflicts in which one country or faction has greater economic and technological strength.

On the other hand, scholars such as Arkin [36] have described a clear threshold for when autonomous weapon systems can be ethically applied to warfare. So long as these systems can abide by the same rules of lawful warfare as their human counterparts, they may be ethically preferable. While a human soldier may be affected by stress, frustration, and prejudice, a robotic system can be built to not experience these conditions and therefore be better able to uphold the standard of conduct that we expect.

Conclusion

In this paper, we have highlighted several programs and research efforts in multirobot systems for military applications. Robotic systems are key components of long-term development planning across all service branches and in a diverse set of environments including battlefields on the land, in the sea, and in the air. Military applications span the spectrum of complexity, requiring operation in unknown and unforgiving terrain. In addition, in many applications, military robot systems will face an adversarial force with opposing goals. Despite these many difficulties, significant progress is being made towards deployment of robotic systems in military applications.

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Correspondence to Nicholas R. Gans.

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Nicholas R. Gans reports a patent 8320616 B2 with royalties paid to Prioria Robotics and a patent PCT/US09/52803 issued in 2011, but it has never been licensed. John G. Rogers III has nothing to disclose.

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Gans, N.R., Rogers, J.G. Cooperative Multirobot Systems for Military Applications. Curr Robot Rep 2, 105–111 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s43154-020-00039-w

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Keywords

  • Autonomous vehicles
  • Human robot cooperation
  • US military