Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division (NSWC Crane), Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the NavalX Midwest Tech Bridge (MTB) recently announced the winners of the Artificial Intelligence for Small Unit Maneuvers (AISUM) Prize Challenge.
EpiSys Science, Inc. (Episci) took first place and Draper, Inc. (Draper) took second place. According to their website, Episci is “a multidisciplinary innovation company that develops next-generation autonomous technologies for defense, aerospace, and commercial applications.”
Draper’s website says the organization “serves our nation’s interests and security needs; advances technologies at the intersection of government, academia, and industry; cultivates the next generation of innovators; and solves the most complex challenges.”
“The overall goal of this challenge was to move the technology needle,” said Amy Ross, Program Manager for the AISUM Prize Challenge. “The priorities were simulation developed algorithms (GPS-denied internal navigation), deploy these algorithms to a low-cost GFE drone, and identify/evaluate performers and talent in this space while encouraging future participation.
The purpose of AISUM technology is to equip warfighters with robotic autonomous systems in critical high-risk missions to keep service members out of harm’s way.
“The modern battlefield is always shaped by the technology of the day,” said Kelly Hughes, Senior Program Analyst at the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (ASD SO/LIC). “From aviation in WWI to precision guided munitions in desert storm, emerging technology often determines the winners and losers in nation state conflict. Today the proliferation of cheap but advanced electronics like commercial drones or the ability of an individual to develop a sophisticated algorithm are defining the battle space. To ensure our nations warfighters maintain superiority we must harness AI powered autonomous systems from large scale drones to the smallest micro systems.”
NSWC Crane identified three lines of effort for the challenge: autonomous navigation, object recognition, and mapping.
“We challenged these teams to uncouple AI software from drone hardware,” said Blake Busey, the NSWC Crane hardware lead on the project. “They developed the algorithms in Phase I and II for simulation, and then we gave them drones to put the software on for Phase III. The ultimate goal was for the drones to be able to identify specific objects of interest, maneuver through an indoor environment, and map the area as they go. The drones’ movements were not controlled via ground station or remote control, and there’s no GPS signal being used – the unmanned systems were observing, thinking, and then acting for themselves with a man in the loop for safety and data reception.”
In Phase I, teams had to submit white papers and virtually present their ideas. The AISUM team accepted only 20 papers and hosted virtual presentations for all teams in four days. In Phase II, participants competed in a virtual environment. The teams developed specific algorithms and contested in various simulated scenarios. The participants were evaluated for their algorithms to be used within a Government-provided virtual map. A $250,000 prize was awarded at the end of Phase II.
The two teams were selected as winners after Phase III of the AISUM Prize Challenge, where they participated in a live exercise at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center.
“Both teams were able to separate the software from the hardware on an inexpensive government-furnished equipment (GFE),” said Busey. “They were also able to demonstrate autonomous exploration using the GFEs, which was remarkable given the timeline.”
The challenge took place over 10 months, from December 2020 to October 2021. The teams began working on the algorithms in March and did not know the type of hardware until August. They received the physical drones two weeks before the event. Hydronolix provided the drones through a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) signed in July 2021.
“We were told over and over again that this was a nearly impossible task…that developing an algorithm and plugging it into an off-the-shelf drone was something that couldn’t be done in the given timeframe and hardware constraints,” said Ross. “They proved it was possible. It didn’t work perfectly, but they autonomously flew drones inside a building and gathered data – drones they only had for two weeks.”
This effort is a high-priority for the Navy. A May 2021 memo from the Secretary of Defense lists software and hardware uncoupling as critical to “generate transformative proficiency and efficiency gains…”
In November at the HACKtheMACHINE unmanned competition, Chief of Naval Research (CNR) Rear Adm. Lorin C. Selby emphasized that unmanned, autonomous systems and low-cost, attritable solutions are the way to “Reimagine Naval Power,” the name of his speech. In this context, “attritable” means low cost, reusable, and expendable. He said the current force structure consists of large assets, “expensive to the point where the United States cannot afford the number of platforms our force structure assessment suggests we need.”
Separating hardware from software creates cost savings and allows for continuous software upgrades and combinations.
“If we uncouple hardware from software, we can use incredibly sophisticated software on a drone that costs less than five thousand dollars,” said Busey. “That means the overall cost goes down from using an expensive drone. That also means we can use drones the Navy already has instead of buying new ones, and it means we can upgrade them whenever we need to or add capabilities by uploading multiple types of software to a single machine. Uncoupling allows for continuous improvement. It also means we can have more of them because the drones are inexpensive enough that it is low-cost to replace them when they’re sent into high-risk situations and can’t be recovered.”
NSWC Crane, the MTB, and ONR chose the prize challenge format because it allows for quick ideation and implementation and attracts a diverse audience like small businesses and nontraditional performers. Busey said having a varied group of competitors is important because the U.S. cannot outspend the Great Power Competition, so disruptive ideas, approaches, and technology are key to building a robust industrial base.
“Even though we’re in a resource constrained environment, we still need to do more to compete,” said Busey. “One way to do that is through attritable systems where you can fail fast, learn faster, repair and replace, and repeat. With this method there is also less sunk cost attachment to an idea or piece of hardware. We can quickly move on to the next best idea. A prize challenge format allows us to explore complicated ideas like software uncoupling without a huge time or cost investment like an official program of record would.”
NSWC Crane partnered with a Purdue University beta team, which was sponsored by the Indiana Innovation Institute (IN3), to help design the challenge. The students worked roughly two weeks ahead of the challenge, providing risk assessments along the way to refine the challenge as it occurred. The beta team was also integral in figuring out ways to simplify giving a large group of competitors access to Navy problems. Using open source images speeds up the process because participants do not need to apply for access to sensitive images.
“To train an AI algorithm to recognize a specific object, you first have to feed it hundreds of thousands of images with that object in it,” said Busey. “The beta team evaluated the proposal to train on representative objects of interest. However, they discovered that the images are not publicly available data for non-traditional partners to access for training. The Navy isn’t really interested in our drones being able to identify chairs, but the point is that the software can be trained to identify a specific object. That’s how we were able to test them using public, open source images.”
Other similar events have been held by Joint Interagency Field Experimentation (JIFX), Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the Army. All the teams informed each other and the problem owner of their results to move forward and ensure continuation of work on unique subsets of the problem.
“This event was a success because we pushed the technology development forward,” said Ross. “Next, we plan to extend the CRADA and have another prize challenge to continue refining the technology so we can keep rapidly moving toward implementation.”
Hughes said the event is an amazing example of government and private sector leveraging their strengths and rapidly demonstrating proven technology.
“AISUM addresses and attempts to fill a capability gap by employing small tactical UAS within our formations at the edge of battle,” said Hughes. “Once employed at scale, AISUM will embody a generational leap ahead capability to save lives and enable US victory should we once again be called upon to fight. The battlefield is rapidly changing, and AI power autonomous systems are becoming more prevalent. This is not the last but the first of many initiatives to ensure the US maintains relative superiority over its adversaries by having the most cutting edge tactical AI powered autonomous systems on the planet.”
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