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DARPA wants new ideas for autonomous drone swarms

The defense wing of the Department of Defense is serious in putting drones into action, not just one by one, but in coordinated swarms. The Offensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics program kicks off its second "sprint," a solicitation and rapid prototyping period of systems based on a central theme. This sprint spring concerns autonomy.

The idea is to collect a lot of ideas on how new technologies, whether it's sensors, software or better propeller blades, can improve the ability of drones to coordinate and function as a collective.

More specifically, swarms of 50 will have to "isolate an urban objective" in about half an hour by working together with each other and with a robot on the ground. This is at least the "operational backdrop" that should guide future competitors in their decision as to whether their technology is applicable.

So, a swarm of drones that seed a field faster than a tractor, while convenient for farmers, is not really a Pentagon thing that interests here. On the other hand, if you can sell this idea as a swarm of drones dropping autonomous sensors on an urban battlefield, they could shine there.

But you could also simply demonstrate how the use of a compact ground lidar system could improve the coordination of swarms at low cost and without using visible light. Or maybe you have designed an outdoor loading system that allows a swarm to attract the attention of tagging units without human intervention.

These are really good ideas, actually – maybe I'll be directing them by program director Timothy Chung when he's on stage at our Robotics event in Berkeley next May. Chung also oversees the Underground Challenge and much more at DARPA . He seems to have fun in the video explaining the basic rules of this new sprint:

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There is no need to have 50 drones to participate – there are simulators and other ways to demonstrate value. You will find more information about the program and how to submit your work to the FBO page.