Discussions of small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) technologies often focus on autonomy, which is often equated with software and artificial intelligence. However, artificial intelligence is a component of computer science and refers to the intelligence of a machine. Software code alone does not fully describe sUAS technology.
To help identify sUAS technologies and how they contribute to future sUAS capabilities, the committee believes that a decomposition of sUAS capabilities may be of benefit. The functional decomposition may create redundancies in the listing of technologies-that is, the same technology may support more than one functional area- but that may be useful information for identifying the importance and breadth of each technology. The decomposition is first broken down into the following four areas: (1) autonomous behavior (2) supporting functions, (3) mission packages and (4) additional considerations. Each area is then broken down into more detailed subareas.1
Autonomous behavior can be broken down into the following components:
- Perception is a sUAS’s ability to sense and observe its surroundings by relating features in sensor data to features in the real world.
Planning includes both path planning and mission planning. Path planning may be deliberate (i.e., the sUAS takes time to assess large amounts of information) or reactive (e.g., the immediate avoidance of an air-to-air collision) and includes the development of a movement trajectory from the current position to the next position(s). Mission planning provides the best course of military action given the following:
- The situational awareness of the environment, enemy situation, friendly situation, weather, time available, etc.;
- An assessment of the assigned mission order;
- Doctrine and tactics;
- Standard operating procedures; and
- Other related military planning information.
- Navigation involves having situational awareness of the movement space; knowledge of the current location, the desired end-state locations, and directions of movement; the ability to map and find a way through immediate surroundings; and the ability to detect nearby hazards to mobility.
- Individual behavior and skills is the combination of artificial intelligence with inputs from perception, planning, and navigation to support cooperative behavior and develop
motor commands. These motor commands may include mobility commands for flying, walking, jumping, and so on; military-related commands for communicating information, maneuvering with other forces, firing weapons, accomplishing assigned missions (e.g., surveillance, reconnaissance, explosive ordnance detection), and so on; interactions with humans, other sUASs, non-sUAS robots, and command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems; control of mission packages (discussed below); and for accomplishing related skills (e.g., control actuators to orient and increase speed on rotors to maintain, stable flight or to hover in windy conditions).
- Group behavior and skills includes advanced swarm and collaborative group behaviors such as collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying, and self-healing.
- sUAS-Human, sUAS-sUAS, sUAS-non-sUAS robots, and sUAS- C4ISR system interactions is the ability to interact with human controllers (including operators and commanders) and other humans (friendly military, enemy, and non-combatants); sUASs; non-sUAS robots; and C4ISR systems. This interaction is very important for collaborative sUAS operations (as defined in this report). It also includes the ability to communicate with others (see “communications” below) and the ability to understand “commander’s intent.”
- Learning and adaptation is the ability of a sUAS to enhance or modify its artificial intelligence and its behaviors based on an evolving friendly situation and/or capabilities as well as changing enemy tactics and/or capabilities-for example, the ability of a sUAS to learn new military roles and rules of engagement when transitioning from conventional to irregular warfare.
Supporting functions include the following:
- Mobility is the ability of a sUAS to traverse through air, on land (natural and artificial terrain), or in water (on and under) environments; including combinations of those environments. For example, hybrid air/sea sUASs may operate in littoral regions and hybrid air/land sUASs may operate on the ground but transform to fly an assigned mission or to traverse obstacles or large distances.
- Communications is the ability to convey and receive information with digital communications systems (including military and non-military communications links), non-verbal communications (e.g., hand-and-arm signals, gestures), and graphical user interfaces. In swarms and collaborative groups, sUASs interact with each other using explicit and/or implicit communications. In collaborative groups, sUASs may communicate with non-sUAS entities.
- Power and energy includes power sources (e.g., rechargeable and non-rechargeable batteries, fuel cells, and engines) and energy management to support a sUAS and its mission package
- Health maintenance is the ability to make a sUAS more robust and to provide maintenance capabilities for self-monitoring, diagnostics, and recovering from component failures (naturally occurring or resulting from an attack).
- Safety is the ability of sUASs (especially those with lethal mission packages) to operate safely in an operational environment. Besides lethality, consider mid-air collisions (especially between sUASs and manned air platforms) and control of air-to-ground crashes, which could result in the destruction of military and civilian ground personnel and property.
- Mission packages include the following:
- Modular physical components, including lethal conventional and unconventional weapons, directed energy and electronic warfare weapons, surveillance systems, and sensors that are attached to a common sUAS platform to provide it with a unique capability; and
- Modular software components that vary from sUAS to sUAS (ranging from complex “decision-focused” software to simple “follow-orders” software) to delineate specific tasks, such as higher-echelon “leader” sUASs, lower-echelon leaders, “follower” sUASs, or even one-of-a-kind task sUASs (e.g., the sUAS designated as flying a low-power jammer).
Additional considerations. In addition to the above autonomous behavior, supporting functions, and mission packages, three other areas can be considered in the decomposition of sUAS technologies. These areas indirectly support the functional capabilities of a sUAS, support the development of a sUAS, and support the testing of sUASs. The three areas are as follows:
- Modeling and simulation. This is the use of individual or a combination of computer-based models and simulations, hardware-in-the-loop simulations, human-in-the-loop simulations, and live prototype simulations to conduct early user assessments, developmental and operational tests, and support systems engineering efforts.
- Systems engineering. This is comprised of tools and methodologies to assist with the optimal design and development of a sUAS; as well as for enhancing the interactions of the components on a sUAS, and the interoperability of a sUAS with humans, other sUASs, other non-sUAS robots, and C4ISR systems.
- Test range support functions. This includes time-space-position information, other test instrumentation (e.g., telemetry), and range safety for instrumenting threat sUASs and assessing counter-sUAS systems. Including instrumentation to provide time-space-position information and other test data is a significant problem on sUASs that have little or no space, weight, or power available for the instrumentation.
NRC (National Research Council). 2002. Technology Development for Army Unmanned Ground Vehicles. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.
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