Prepping for 50-on-50 aerial BattleBot conflict (pictures)

At the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., researchers are working on a wide variety of technologies, including systems for setting up complex airborne UAV skirmishes.

Daniel Terdiman
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
1 of 18 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

UAV army

MONTEREY, Calif.--The U.S. military knows that drones are an effective way of conducting surveillance, but they may also some day be used as weapons. That's why researchers at the Naval Postgraduate School here are studying ways of creating swarms of unmanned aerial vehicles that could conduct a wide variety of operations.

One is to take part in aerial "Battle Bot" conflict since, the researchers conclude, UAVs are now cheap enough that the military's adversaries may have their own access to large numbers of drones.

That's why Timothy Chung, an assistant professor in the Department of Systems Engineering at the Naval Postgraduate School, is working on the technology behind creating what he hopes will eventually be a 50-on-50 aerial Battle Bot duel.

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Quadrotor with paint gun

One thing the military is worried about is combat soldiers getting pinned down by snipers. But at the Naval Postgraduate School, researcher Kevin Jones of the Unmanned Autonomous Systems department is working on a series of what could be backpack UAVs capable of flying above them and potentially serving both to determine where a sniper is located and possibly even attack them.

That's where this quadrotor comes in. Although many UAVs are too light to control properly, this vehicle can likely be held steady enough to accurately surveil or target an enemy. But while the military isn't yet practicing with live weapons, Jones explained that by outfitting the quadrotor with a paintball gun, he can experiment to see how useful it is.

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Chung with UAV

Timothy Chung, an assistant professor in the Naval Postgraduate School's Department of Systems Engineering, holds a light, low-cost autonomous vehicle to demonstrate its size and weight.

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PVC launcher

Chung says that the logistics of hand-launching 50 UAVs in a 50-on-50 aerial Battle Bot conflict would be impractical: the vehicles' batteries don't last long enough to stay aloft long enough for all 50 to get airborne.

But one of Chung's students came up with this launcher, made from PVC pipe and bungie cords. The idea is that a small team could set all 50 UAVs up in advance and quickly get them airborne for the battle.

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Onboard computer

The small, lightweight UAV has several compartments that can hold a payload of some kind or another. For his purposes, Chung has built in an onboard computer capable of controlling the UAV autonomously.

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Open bays

A look at the other open compartments on one of Chung's UAVs.

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Scan Eagle

Jones, of the Unmanned Autonomous Systems department, explained that some of his work is about finding ways to replace the tasks previously performed by this high-end UAV, known as a Scan Eagle. Though a high-performance vehicle, the Scan Eagle can cost more than $1 million fully outfitted, and its airframe alone costs $100,000.

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RC hobby plane

This used to be a remote-controlled hobby airplane. Now, Jones' team has turned it into a UAV that can perform some of the tasks previously taken on by a Scan Eagle. But at a cost of about $15,000 fully outfitted, it is far more affordable than a Scan Eagle, allowing researchers to conduct a wide variety of experiments with it.

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Looking for vehicles

Jones explained that because military personnel change jobs frequently, it can be inefficient to rely on highly trained people to do important tasks because they won't be around very long.

That means the military is looking for ways to reduce the complexity of operating things like UAVs, or targeting opponents, and to offload vital jobs to decision makers, or at least people likely to stay in their positions for awhile.

One result is that if, for example, it is important to scan a local road for enemies, technology is being developed that can enable people to simply use mapping software -- like Google Earth -- to draw a line along the road, and the software will then instruct the UAV to fly directly above it, looking down for enemies. This image reflects how a UAV would surveil the road without needing a highly trained operator to run the vehicle.

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Glider as UAV

These days, most UAVs being used in war are either gas-powered or electric, Jones explained. But neither is very stealthy. Smaller vehicles can be quieter, but have no endurance. There are smaller UAVs that are quieter, but they are too easily buffeted around by winds.

One solution Jones' group at the Naval Postgraduate School has come up with is a glider UAV that is designed to search out, and find, thermals that it can use to stay aloft for hours at a time with no propulsion.

Such a glider would need to have some batteries on board to run its electronics, but the military is also experimenting with very thin-film solar panels that provide enough power. This project was started by a Naval Postgraduate School student, but now the Department of Defense is interested in pursuing it for actual field work.

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Glider and thermals

These images explain how the glider would use thermals to stay aloft for hours at a time without the need for propulsion.

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Surviving failure

Human pilots are trained to fly airplanes successfully even when several of their systems fail. But at some point, even the best pilots are unable to keep their aircraft in the air.

NASA has been looking for an autopilot system capable of keeping a plane flying even after it has had what would otherwise be a catastrophic failure of its systems. Jones' department at the Naval Postgraduate School is working on a possible answer. It has come up with technology known as an "adaptive controller" that it believes can keep track of a plane's autopilot, and when the aircraft is no longer functioning, it takes over.

NASA wants to test the equipment in the commercial aviation market, and has built a scale model Boeing 757 that it can load with a selection of sophisticated sensors. But at $5 million, it is too expensive to risk crashing while experimenting with the new system.

As a result, the Naval Postgraduate School is testing the technology to try to get it to the point where it is sophisticated enough to keep the model 757 aloft even in situations that would have normally have resulted in a crash.

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BMW 650i at Naval Postgraduate School

The Naval Postgraduate School's main building, Hermann Hall, seen with the BMW 650i Coupe that CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman is road-testing on Road Trip 2012 parked in front of it.

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CubeSat interior

At the Naval Postgraduate School's Space Systems department, researchers are hard at work coming up with new ways to use the small satellites known as CubeSats.

A CubeSat has a standard dimension. A 1U CubeSat is 10 cubic centimeters, and they come in 1U, 2U, and 3U sizes. Each picosatellite can have a wide variety of different kinds of technologies and sensors installed inside its small metal frame. They are then loaded into a special box called a Cal Poly P-POD, which is spring loaded so that when it is released from a larger container in space, it can launch the satellite.

This is a look inside a CubeSat that will have a special solar installed on its top so that researchers can evaluate how long the cells will last in space.

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With solar on top

This is the same CubeSat with the solar cell fitted into place on its top side.

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NPSCUL scale model

Researchers at the Naval Postgraduate School have come up with a unique case capable of holding eight Cal Poly P-PODs, each of which can itself hold up to three CubeSats. Known as an NPSCUL, the case can theoretically carry up to 24 CubeSats. The goal is that researchers putting together CubeSats to launch into space shouldn't have to worry about whether their project will fit so long as their CubeSat adheres to the standard dimensions.

This is a half-size scale model of an NPSCUL.

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Prototype electronics

These are prototype electronics for a microsatellite known as NPSat1. Researchers at the Naval Postgraduate School are putting together a technology demonstration on spacecraft flying a host of experiments from the school and the nearby Naval Research Laboratory.

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This is a machine that will be used to test the endurance and reliability of the electronics in the previous image. The machine will shake the electronics in a bid to understand how they hold up to conditions similar to those they will encounter aboard a launch vehicle on its way to space.

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