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Urban canyons limit military communications, mobility, and tactics. These challenges become even more daunting when US forces are in areas they do not control—where they can’t rely on supply chains, infrastructure, and previous knowledge of local conditions and potential threats.

Unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) have long proven beneficial in such difficult areas, but their value to ground troops could be vastly amplified if troops could control scores or even hundreds of these robotic units simultaneously. The obstacle blocking this goal is the fact that US military forces currently lack the technologies to manage and interact with such swarms.

To help overcome these challenges and dramatically increase the effectiveness of small-unit combat forces operating in urban environments, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has launched its new OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) program. The program seeks to develop and demonstrate 100+ operationally relevant swarm tactics that could be used by groups of unmanned air and/or ground systems numbering more than 100 robots. These swarm tactics for large teams of unmanned assets would help improve force protection, firepower and precision effects.

Timothy Chung, DARPA’s program manager, told the agency’s website: “With the technologies and tactics to be developed under OFFSET, we anticipate achieving a deeper understanding of how large numbers of increasingly autonomous air and ground robots can be leveraged to benefit urban warfighters. If we’re successful, this work could also bring entirely new scalable, dynamic capabilities to the battlefield, such as distributed perception, resilient communications, dispersed computing, and analytics.”

To accomplish these goals, OFFSET seeks to develop an active swarm tactics development ecosystem and supporting open systems architecture, including an advanced human-swarm interface to enable users to monitor and direct potentially hundreds of unmanned platforms simultaneously in real time. The program will also include a real-time, networked virtual environment that would support a physics-based, swarm tactics game. In the game, players would use the interface to rapidly explore, evolve, and evaluate swarm tactics to see which would potentially work best.