Imagine several dispersed, yet interconnected medium altitude surveillance drones discover a massive, fast approaching enemy armored force on the other side of a mountain range, advancing quickly to attack. What if before the drones could send real-time video to command and control centers, communications were jammed, destroyed or disrupted? How could the drones continue the mission to surveil, collect crucial intelligence and identify items of great relevance to commanders? Would the drones malfunction and instantly fail to sustain operations?
The possibility of encountering this kind of increasingly realistic warfare scenario in part forms the rationale for a fast-emerging technology program called Distributed Autonomy Responsive Control (DARC). DARC enables unmanned systems to better form “mesh” networks through air and ground nodes to perform a greater range of functions without needing to have each small move coordinated by a ground-based human decision-maker. Described as “software” by Northrop Grumman developers, DARC in effect pre-programs drones with navigational detail and mission specifics to enable continued operational functionality in denied, jammed or otherwise inoperable environments.
“We are transitioning drones from permissive to highly contested environments to enable unmanned systems to continuously adapt to the battlefield and allow machines to work better together,” Richard Sullivan, Vice President, Program Management, Northrop Grumman, told reporters.
Relying upon new applications of autonomy, DARC-infused drones can sustain mission consistency in the absence of GPS or real-time command and control. Should an ability to transmit video be compromised by interference or any kind of hostile enemy activity, DARC technology allows an unmanned system to gather, collect, organize and prepare information for decision makers until an opportunity for safe transmission arrives.
On-board computers can, in some instances, utilize machine learning programs to bounce new mission data off of existing information to make rapid determinations of consequence to a mission before sending organized data to commanders.
DARC can also rely upon greater levels of autonomy to allow drone-to-drone connectivity without needing to send data through a ground-based command and control system. For example, if one drone in a family of interconnected airborne surveillance assets encounters weather obscurants or veers off course, other air “nodes” can help offer direction and enable aircraft to autonomously make the proper adjustments. This not only decreases the “cognitive burden” or human workload, but massively improves latency or combat-critical sensor-to-shooter time.
For example, a drone configured with DARC software could draw upon onboard processing speed to gather, organize and analyze large volumes of reconnaissance and surveillance data such as video feeds, determine the relevance of specific information and, when technically possible should it be a challenged or denied environment, transmit streamlined data to human decision-makers.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.