drone in DARPA swarm challenge (DARPA)


Teaching drones to organize themselves

Robotics, Automation & Unmanned Systems Finalists

Fast Lightweight Autonomy and Service Academies Swarm Challenge Program
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Department of Defense

Process Robotics

Sea Hunter

Semi Autonomous Top Layer Technology
Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Army

UAS Program Development
City of Murfreesboro, Tenn.


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Unmanned aerial vehicles have been conducting military reconnaissance, surveillance and attack missions for more than a decade. But drones are generally guided by a human operator and don’t work in coordination with one another, as a fighter squadron might during a dogfight.

Under the Service Academies Swarm Challenge (SASC) sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, teams from the Army, Navy and Air Force are testing software that will eventually enable drones to autonomously coordinate attacks and respond to challenges by opposing swarms of enemy aircraft.

“The whole premise of the program is to develop these offensive and defensive tactics and see if they could be implemented into a swarm of unmanned systems,” said Bradley Knaus, a physicist at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlantic. “Swarm technologies are sort of in a immature state, and we’re trying to evolve them and figure out how these systems can be used collaboratively.”

The project, which launched in summer 2016, culminated in a live fly-off between two teams at Camp Roberts, a training base for the California National Guard.

Each team sent 10 propeller-driven fixed-wing Zephyr drones skyward with instructions to attack any enemies encountered. Although the drones were configured identically, they were equipped with different tactical and communications software that had been developed by the two teams. They also deployed DJI quadcopters equipped with video cameras.

Knaus said SASC is so far tackling only one piece of the puzzle in developing drones’ swarm fighting capabilities. He added that more work needs to be done to create drones that cost less while having longer flight times and greater load-carrying capabilities.

“But it definitely provides insight when you get out there and see it,” he said.

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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