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Awesome Algorithms: Prize Challenge Tests Software Performance in Unmanned Vehicles

For Immediate Release: May 09, 2022

ARLINGTON, Va.—Emergent technology is vital in shaping the modern battlefield. Consider the importance of aviation in World War I, submarines and aircraft carriers in World War II and precision-guided munitions in Desert Storm.

Today’s battlefields are being altered by artificial intelligence (AI), complex software and unmanned autonomous systems such as drones.

“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,” said Kelly Hughes, senior program analyst at the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict. “To ensure our nation’s warfighters maintain superiority, we must harness AI-powered autonomous systems, from large-scale drones to the smallest micro systems.”

Building on this focus, the Office of Naval Research (ONR), Naval Surface Warfare Center Crane Division (NSWC Crane) and the NavalX Midwest Tech Bridge recently sponsored a three-stage competition called the Artificial Intelligence for Small Unit Maneuvers (AISUM) Prize Challenge.

AISUM comprised participants from industry, academia, small and large businesses, and start-up companies. Their task involved developing open-source, “hardware-agnostic” software algorithms that could work in multiple government-furnished and commercially available drones. The drones needed to operate in a GPS-denied environment and perform autonomous navigation, object recognition and mapping. The total prize: $750,000.

AISUM’s mission aligns with Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Lorin C. Selby’s call to reimagine naval power. Selby recently presented a new vision for future naval power—involving faster development, testing and transition of unmanned, autonomous systems; more efficient collaborations with industry and academia; and reimagined naval formations.

A key component of this innovation push, Selby said, is embracing the idea of “the small, the agile and the many”—small, unmanned, autonomous platforms that can be constructed, tested and adapted quickly; can be built in large numbers; and are less expensive than larger platforms. These air, surface and subsurface vehicles can be outfitted with a variety of sensors and payloads for diverse missions.

The AISUM Prize Challenge occurred in three phases over 10 months:

—Phase one: Teams submitted white papers and presented their ideas virtually.

—Phase two: Participants competed in a virtual environment and created specific software algorithms for simulated scenarios. The contestants were judged by how well their algorithms performed within a government-furnished virtual map.

—Phase three: Teams installed their algorithms in actual government-furnished drones and participated in a live exercise at NSWC Crane’s Muscatatuck Urban Training Center. The drones needed to identify specific objects of interest, maneuver through an indoor environment and map the area as they traveled.

The winning team was California-based EpiSys Science, Inc. The Department of the Navy (DoN) will likely enter into a cooperative agreement with EpiSys to further develop their software and field a prototype for the operational environment.

“These kinds of prize challenges are mutually educational and beneficial,” said Dr. Michael Qin, a program officer in ONR’s Warfighter Performance Department. “ONR can see if the software algorithms can work as promised across different drones—and contestants experience some of the obstacles that warfighters face in the field. The technology leaves the lab and faces the noise and ambiguity of the real world.”

Blake Busey, an AISUM technical lead, said the ability to uncouple software from hardware has many potential benefits for the DoN.

“We can use incredibly sophisticated software on a drone that costs less than $5,000,” said Busey. “We can use drones the Navy already has instead of buying new ones. We also can upgrade them or add capabilities by uploading multiple types of software to a single machine.

“In addition, using open-source software reduces the rate of obsolescence,” said Busey, “because software is always being improved and updated by the unmanned community. This limits vulnerability from hackers and results in faster upgrades.”

Warren Duffie Jr. is a contractor for ONR Corporate Strategic Communications.

About the Office of Naval Research

The Department of the Navy’s Office of Naval Research provides the science and technology necessary to maintain the Navy and Marine Corps’ technological advantage. Through its affiliates, ONR is a leader in science and technology with engagement in 50 states, 55 countries, 634 institutions of higher learning and nonprofit institutions, and more than 960 industry partners. ONR, through its commands, including headquarters, ONR Global and the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., employs more than 3,800 people, comprising uniformed, civilian and contract personnel.