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DARPA has been accelerating its efforts to develop tactics for deploying swarms of unmanned aircraft and ground vehicles to help U.S. soldiers in urban warfare.

The agency’s Offensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) program aims to create the command and control structure to allow swarms of 250 or more air and ground robots to team up with small human combat units for tasks such as reconnaissance, surveillance and clearing out enemy-held buildings.  

After it has awarded Phase I development contracts to two teams led by Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, DARPA is now taking another approach to fast-tracking OFFSET. The two development teams will continue to design an open-architecture system to control swarms of drones.

At the same time, the agency will solicit what it calls “swarm sprints,” where outside participants can collaborate with the two prime design teams, and with each other, to conduct various experiments formulated by DARPA, according to

Every six months, the agency will solicit proposals from potential sprinters in five core areas: swarm tactics, swarm autonomy, human-swarm teaming, virtual environment, and physical testbed.  

What’s unusual about OFFSET is the concept of generating tactics for drone swarms on the spot in real time, rather than tactics being pre-programmed. This enables the updating of tactics for a drone swarm in the midst of a mission in less than a minute. Creating more than three viable, alternative courses of action that a swarm could take should also take less than one minute.

How does a human operator, say a single operator, control hundreds of robots at a time? DARPA says it will use a “realistic game-based environment,” though it’s not clear whether this will comprise some kind of video game-like control interface.