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Drone dogfights by 2015? U.S. Navy preps for futuristic combat

Researchers at the Naval Postgraduate School are trying to figure out how to develop a system that pits two huge teams of autonomous drones against each other. CNET Road Trip 2012 investigates.

Timothy Chung, an assistant professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, envisions pitting dueling armies of up to 50 UAVs against each other.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET

MONTEREY, Calif.--Imagine an aerial dogfight of epic proportions: Fifty aircraft on a side, each prowling the sky for advantage over dozens of adversaries.

If Timothy Chung has his way, such a battle could take place over Southern California by 2015. But before you worry that war is coming to American soil, you should know that Chung's vision is really about a high-tech game of Capture the Flag played by as many as a hundred small, lightweight unmanned aerial vehicles playing their role in a grand challenge of an experiment.

Chung is an assistant professor in the Systems Engineering department at the Naval Postgraduate School here, and one of his long-term projects is figuring out ways to help the U.S. military maintain an advantage in a world where aerial drones have dropped so much in price and complexity that there is substantial concern our enemies could soon have the ability to use them as weapons against us in combat.

That's why Chung's Advanced Robotics Systems Engineering Lab -- ARSENL for short -- has been working for some time now on developing a swarm of low-cost, lightweight autonomous flying vehicles known as Aerial Battle Bots (see video below) that are designed to work together against a common foe. That's particularly true, he explained to me when I visited his lab yesterday as part of my CNET Road Trip 2012 project, because there is no reason to think that America's enemies might not also be able to field their own swarm of 50 UAVs.

Already, Chung and his interns and master's students -- have pieced together a small swarm of about a dozen UAVs -- essentially commodity radio-controlled flying machines called Unicorn that have been retrofitted with onboard computers and other gear in order to take their places in the larger group. He hopes that by this August, he and his team will be able to get the vehicles flying and be able to start experimenting with getting them working together, as well as facing off.

Timothy Chung, an assistant professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, envisions pitting dueling armies of up to 50 UAVs against each other. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

And while Chung and his charges are a long way from the Navy's actual battlefields, his role at the Naval Postgraduate School is to immerse his students -- currently a group of nine from departments as diverse as physics, information sciences, operations research, and systems engineering -- in the kind of new technologies that they can eventually use to influence their own commanders or other decision makers.

As Chung puts it, "One of the key challenges [the Navy faces] is having its technology keep up with the pace of progress. The goal is having students be able to anticipate that pace of progress."

More astronauts than any other university
Tucked away in Monterey, on California's gorgeous central coast about two hours south of San Francisco, the Naval Postgraduate School isn't on every military aficionado's radar. But there's some good arguments for why it should be.

For one, the school has graduated more astronauts than any other American university. Each year, it awards about 1,200 degrees, the vast majority of which are master's. Students come from throughout the American military, as well as from dozens of other countries.

Daniel Terdiman

More from Road Trip 2012: Tech out West

Check out the latest from Daniel's tour of all things geeky in the Golden State, with jaunts into Nevada, Arizona, and Oregon, as well.

Founded as the School of Marine Engineering at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. in 1909, it moved to Monterey in 1949 and opened its doors as the Naval Postgraduate School in 1951. Today, it operates four schools -- The Graduate School of Business and Public Policy; the Graduate School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; the Graduate School of Operational and Information Sciences; and the School of International Graduate Studies. It also runs four research institutes -- The MOVES Institute for Defense Modeling and Simulation; the Wayne E. Meyer Institute of Systems Engineering; the Cebrowski Institute for Innovation and Information Superiority; and the National Security Institute. All work on "military-related priority projects for the Navy and the Department of Defense," according to an official brochure.

Back in Chung's lab, he explained that as he and his students work toward his eventual goal of putting opposing swarms of battling UAVs in the skies, they've realized that though the Unicorns can be launched by hand, it's wouldn't be at all practical to require a team to get 50 of them up in the air that way.

That's because the vehicles have short-lived batteries, and by the time the 50th was airborne, the first would probably already be ready to fall back to Earth.

But that's no problem. One of his students, it turns out, has devised a launching mechanism made out of PVC pipe and bungie cords that could be set up in advance and used to quickly get dozens of the UAVs up and flying.

The PVC and bungie cord UAV launcher designed by one of Chung's students. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

And in fact, he added, even DARPA is grappling with the question of the right ratio of personnel to devices like this. Clearly, it's not efficient to require one person for each UAV, but neither can you ask one person to tackle dozens. Chung has a theory that the best way might be to have one commander running all logistics, and about a dozen people to man all other tasks. But then again, maybe the way to go is to have five people each responsible for ten UAVs. The idea is to find the right balance and see if it is scalable.

So far, though, no one has yet figured out how to apportion resources. Still, by calling them "Battle Bots," Chung hopes he can get a lot of people interested in attacking -- and solving -- these problems. "If you put 'battle' in the title," he grinned, "people get fired up."

Naturally, the school isn't the only one that is addressing problems like these. In fact, Chung imagines that students at the Air Force Institute of Technology are also trying to figure out the best way to develop swarming UAVs and may have altogether different approaches. But rather than work in a vacuum, he envisions eventual duels between his swarms and their swarms that can teach both sides the advantages of each others' algorithms and platforms. That way, they can develop a cooperative library of knowledge.

By 2015, then, he's hoping that all comers will congregate at the California Army National Guard's Camp Roberts in Paso Robles, Calif., a huge facility with closed airspace, for a bracket-style tournament to see whose UAV army is the best. "We can challenge other schools," Chung said, "but what we're really providing is a test bed where people can come and innovate."