DIU wants to bring swarming drones to the DOD

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The Defense Innovation Unit, the Department of Defense’s Silicon Valley-based rapid acquisition office, is seeking artificial intelligence-enabled drone systems that can swarm enemy forces in battle.

The technique of swarming — also more formally referred to as “multi-agent cooperative autonomy” — uses AI to instruct teams of small drones to maneuver as a group. The systems need to be able to operate as a team but without direct human control, according to a new DIU solicitation. The key to the system’s success is neural networks trained on data that allows the drones to fly through new environments without needing human intervention.

DIU is looking for companies that could build a platform for swarming teams of three or more drones that can link with other platforms and third-party drone hardware.

“The solution should be capable of swarming in complex, contested, and congested environments,” the solicitation states.

The swarming drone teams must use “passive sensors” to transmit data among drones to keep them from crashing into each other while in flight in all kinds of conditions. Beyond data that will instruct the drones’ flight path, the teams will also need to be able to synthesize real-time 3D maps of environments.

Before flight simulations can happen, DIU is also looking for a synthetic training environment to test its new systems. With swarming technology dependent on a neural network, DIU wants to be able to test the accuracy of the AI-enabled system in virtual environments. Many of the test environments will feature typical terrains and climates “such as desert (arid), mountainous (moderate elevation/mid-high winds), dense urban clutter, and subterranean environments.” But the true test will be having an AI-enabled system on the platform that can navigate swarms through novel landscapes.

“Examples of these behaviors include detection and identification of items in the environment, as well as understanding the context of an unstructured and previously unknown scene,” according to the solicitation.

Drone technology has been a core part of DIU’s work, both in systems that can counter enemy drones and offensive swarming tactics. In February, Defense Digital Services took over a DIU team focused on counter-drone tech called Rogue Squadron.

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artificial intelligence (AI), counter-unmanned aircraft systems (C-UAS), Defense Digital Service (DDS), DIU (formerly DIUx), drones