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Air Force Advances Weapons That Collaborate

AFRL engineers aim to benefit warfighters at the tactical edge.

For some time, engineers at the Air Force Research Laboratory have been developing network collaborative autonomous technologies. Munitions that operate in coordination with unmanned aerial vehicles, decoys and other systems make decisions, shift course and achieve a mission. The researchers have successfully designed platforms to support such capabilities, as well as developing and integrating the complex subsystems that support the networking, collaborative operations and autonomy. It is the researchers’ approach in the so-called Golden Horde project, however, that represents one of the early successful attempts to harness digital engineering, says Col. Garry Haase, commander and director, Munitions Directorate, Air Force Research Laboratory, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.

“The kind of change is to go into more of this build-up approach from the live virtual constructive aspects and this digital foundation to where we can have more opportunities to bring in digital models to test out in the digital environment and then move to, depending on the maturity levels, a hardware in the loop or software in the loop connection,“ Col. Haase explains.

Previously, researchers at the lab, which is known as the AFRL, had been pursuing a more traditional—and longer—approach to advancing the network collaborative autonomous capabilities. With the mandate last fall from Will Roper, former assistant secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, to embrace a new digital acquisition reality, the engineers shifted course, levered digital tools, and are now set to deliver network collaborative autonomous solutions to warfighters earlier, through the Air Force Program Executive Office for Weapons (PEO Weapons). The researchers have also improved the digital enterprise capabilities of modeling and simulation, the use of digital twins, live virtual constructive (LVC) environments and computer-enabled design and testing.

The researchers’ efforts to develop network collaborative autonomous munition weapons systems stem from an AFRL program called Grey Wolf, a clean sheet design, modular, open-architecture platform, the colonel says.

“The intent was to be a low-cost cruise missile type of platform with an expendable truck to give us a lot of flexibility,” explains Col. Haase. “The first phase of that was to test out the platform itself, which we’re completing now, and then continue the work by incorporating network collaborative autonomous technologies within the platform and then advance some of those collaborative technologies in particular. The kinds of benefits of the capability that we see with network collaborative autonomous technologies is that we can have different types of weapons or decoys or other expendables all working together. We can have a swarm that has one or two systems that have a more advanced sensor-seeker type of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) capability to sense what’s going on around the environment. Then you may have something that has more electronic warfare capability to provide some decoy or other type of capabilities.”

AFRL engineers also were pursuing several related network collaborative autonomous Joint Capability Technology Demonstrations (JCTDs), including one that involved anti-jamming GPS technologies and another that examined GPS home on GM secret technologies. An additional JCTD effort paired the AFRL with the Navy to further examine various network collaborative autonomous capabilities. “That included L3 Harris’ [BNC2] network software-defined radio and Georgia Tech Research Institute’s collaborative autonomy processor, basically a kind of a flight computer that hosts all the algorithms for the autonomy,” the colonel offers.

“As we were going through this, Dr. Roper challenged us to look at what we were doing with Grey Wolf,” Col. Haase continues. “He challenged us to move faster with the network collaborative autonomous technologies. He said, ‘What’s keeping you from taking those and putting them onto a program of record and doing a demonstration of the technologies to keep furthering that along.’ We said, ‘Yes, we can do that,’ and so we shifted gears from the longer, drawn-out serial process that we were doing with Grey Wolf. We’re ending Grey Wolf after we finish flight testing and demonstrating it as a platform. We will have that on the shelf to explore further or to use as a testbed, which we might do because of its modularity, but we’re essentially not doing more work with that as a program.”

Instead, the program changed its name to Golden Horde, and the engineers are taking the best components from the JCTD projects and repackaging the network collaborative autonomous technologies into the front part of a laser-guided small diameter bomb (SDB)—stripped of the laser parts to make room for the collaborative weapons components.

“The laser SDB has kind of this bulbous front to it that holds the laser seeker,” the colonel states. “We kept the form factor and just took all the laser seeker pieces out of that front end so that we could package in the anti-jammer, GPS home and home-on-jam seeker. Then from the network collaborative autonomous JCTD that we were doing, we took the BNC2 radio, the autonomy module and then the seeker piece from the other JCTD and were able to package that altogether into that Laser SDB 1 form factor.”

The resulting solution is what the researchers are calling a collaborative small diameter bomb or CSDB. “We could go do a demo with that fairly quickly,” he confirms.

The researchers are continuing to improve the three main aspects of the CSDB: the networking, the collaborative piece and the autonomous systems in order to apply the solution to numerous weapons, unmanned aerial vehicles or other systems and operate them autonomously in coordination with one another to defeat adversarial threats across different environments.

For the networking piece, the researchers are examining how the various platforms communicate with one another. “We are looking at capabilities in terms of software-defined radios, aspects of different types of networks, and network connections both between weapons systems but also the sensors, and how does that pass information back to the weapons systems or another sensor out there,” the colonel suggests. “It gets to the ABMS [Advanced Battle Management System] kind of philosophy of everything talking to one another.”

The available radio technologies have different capabilities in terms of size, weight, power and their ability to connect into a network, the colonel explains. “You have to have that integration piece of being able to connect into a bigger network, and will my radio be able to talk into that bigger network or have the waveform to connect into a Link 16 network or some mesh networks or other networks out there,” he states. “There is a lot of ongoing work in terms of software-defined radios. Ultimately, we would like to have some flexibility to be able to handle different networks or waveforms so that we can have more freedom to talk to multiple different types of networks.”

The networked collaborative weapons naturally require autonomous capabilities, and the Golden Horde researchers are working to support a third version of an autonomous architecture developed originally from the so-called CODE program, or Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment effort, started at DARPA and now owned by the Navy.

The autonomy was designed with set “plays,” or preprogrammed actions that can autonomously be re-prioritized or changed based on the operational environment and the defined mission parameters. “[This is] what we call a ‘play’ perspective,” Col Haase notes. “That is the ability to sense the environment and report, ‘Hey, something has changed so, how do I work together as a swarm to address that change in my environment? Is there a threat that I need to avoid or is that threat a higher priority target now than what I was going after before? You two, go out of the swarm, you divert and take care of that target, and the rest of us are going to continue on our path to prosecute the primary target. That is what also ties in with the autonomy piece, where we have these rules of engagement that are defined in these types of plays.”

The overall goal with the autonomous capabilities is to build a common government-owned software architecture for autonomy. “That is where we want to go, to be able to leverage a lot of that, not just for weapons but for unmanned platforms and aerial vehicles,” he states. “That would allow us on the government side or other industry partners to bring in some of their plays or other capabilities…. versus a proprietary vendor system that would have a potentially longer integration time frame and more costs.”

The foundation of network collaborative autonomous technologies would apply to new systems, the colonel says, adding that “we’ll see about potential on-ramps for existing inventory” of weapons systems or other platforms. And the size of the swarms will naturally depend on mission needs and the associated platforms. “In the JCTD, we had multiple [groups of] 10 unmanned aerial systems working together,” he shares. “In Golden Horde with the collaborative SCBs, in the first flight test, we have just two others. And in the other testing we are using four. It depends on how you would want to structure that, and what the target set was that you were going after.”

In addition, the researchers are leveraging the modeling and simulation infrastructure already in place to conduct the LVC and digital enterprise design and testing. “That was one of the things that came from the Grey Wolf work as well is that we have a digital twin of the actual Grey Wolf,” the colonel says. “We can do a lot from the digital environment, to the hardware and software in the loop environment. And because of the variable payload capabilities, we can more easily insert new subsystems to test out. We can follow that whole thread through the early concepts in a digital environment to actually putting hardware and software loaded into the system, testing out hardware and software in the loop in lab environments and then potentially even flying and dropping.”

The digital enterprise environment also enables the researchers to try out different concepts of employment, “and other aspects as well beside just the technology aspects,” the colonel states. The researchers also are saving money and advancing the use of the digital enterprise.

“Looking at the network collaborative autonomous capabilities in the virtual environment allows us to look at larger numbers without having to spend a lot of money on actual systems,” Col. Haase notes. “And there are lots of complexities as you add more systems into the test in terms of the range infrastructure being able to keep track of all these different systems.

“Dr. Roper helped to shake things up a little bit for us, and I’ll be frank that was a little painful in my first engagement with him that turned Grey Wolf into Golden Horde, but it was the right thing,” the colonel shares. “It really helped to kick us into thinking a little differently from that longer, drawn-out serial process of the path that we were on and helped us to see that we can make this happen. That has helped to change our culture and mindset of really to keep thinking, ‘OK, yes, we can do things differently.’ And that’s continuing with the chief of staff [Gen. Charles Brown, USAF, Air Force Chief] and his push to ‘accelerate, change, or lose.’ So, even though Dr. Roper is no longer there at SAF HQ, I think the mindset and culture are in place to help us continue that ‘move faster, be more agile and take some risk,’ mentality.”