30 May 2002
High tech sky tech
Washington, D.C. - Move over, Buck Rogers. We're heading toward a time when there may be a wartime battlefield where nary a human combatant is in view. Instead, swarms of unmanned, unattended, and untethered drones on the ground, in the air, and underwater.
The drones are doing everything normally seen in a hostile combat zone: surveillance, strike, perhaps even capture and detention. Imagine hundreds, even thousands of vehicles - perhaps robotic flies or birds - all armed and dangerous, and, best of all, all doing the dirty work.
Now imagine this network as mobile - ready in a matter of minutes and modified for use in a massive search and rescue scenario like occurred on 11 September and the days immediately afterward.
This is what Allen Moshfegh visualizes at the Office of Naval Research. His scenario goes beyond autopilot, beyond preprogramming. His vision involves a "commander" giving a broad operational order to thousands of drones and other vehicles - or agents as he likes to call them.
However, it that same commander does not have to manage all the minute details of the particular operation he has ordered. In fact, the agents will know exactly what to do, and just how to do it even if things go terribly wrong, as they so often do in war.
Moshfegh has pulled together a collaborative team from academia, including Mario Gerla and John Villasenor of UCLA's School of Engineering and Applied Science; industry; and the federal government to develop his Autonomous Intelligent Network and Systems (AINS) initiative. His team includes electrical and chemical engineers, biochemists, and computer specialists, as well as neurobiologists and cognitive neuroscientists.
Why neurobiologists and cognitive neuroscientists? Because Moshfegh sees the similarities and parallels between the way our brains convert decision to intent to action - not neuron by neuron, but only as a coordinated effort between hundreds of neurons. He wants to get his agents to perform in much the same way.
Networking a very few autonomous vehicles and performing an operation successfully is already possible. Moshfegh's intent differs in that it involves whole battalions of these vehicles working and communicating and operating together. But, this can only happen if these vehicles can, after a fashion, think for themselves, and if the inherently prickly problems of such a system can be overcome.
For example, consider mission planning and decision making with what is essentially an army of brainless hardware. Then include distributed signal processing, stored sensory information, distributed computing, mobile internetworking and wireless communication, monitor and control, variance in available bandwidth, and hardware engineering difficulties. Add to that fault tolerance (the adaptive ability to protect and heal itself from the environment as well as from attack), not to mention demanding wireless communication networks (what Allen calls "Internet in the Sky") needed by all these vehicles (some moving at 300 mph).
"As always, the 'devil's in the details'," said Moshfegh. "But this will work. We've seen it on a small scale already in the war in Afghanistan."
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