DARPA Wants To Teach Drones To Fight Airplanes

How do you manage a sky full of humans and robots? A new DARPA initiative aims to find out.

The Last Fight of Captain Ball, 7th May 1917

World War I was the first conflict to see air-to-air fighting. Battles between fighter pilots were dubbed "dogfights," and the unforgiving nature of war led to rapid improvement of these planes.Norman G Arnold, via Wikimedia Commons

The very first airplanes used in war were scouts and light bombers, which flew above armies and dropped small bombs (often thrown from a pilot's hand) onto enemies. By and large, that's where military drones are today: surveillance tools that sometimes fire missiles. A new initiative from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency wants to change that, and bring drones right up to the cutting-edge aerial warfare innovation of 1914: air-to-air combat.

On February 28th, DARPA is holding a conference in northern Virginia to start tackling the problems of future air-to-air battles. DARPA wants the military and industry to figure out "Distributed Battle Management," or how to organize a sky with both manned and unmanned aircraft fighting alongside one another.

Among the challenges:

  • Develop algorithms that help aircraft, manned and especially unmanned, fight better in air-to-air combat
  • Make data links and communication work in a warzone, where data infrastructure is unlikely to be good and could easily be made bad
  • Keep things simple for those on the ground and in command

The end products, DARPA says, are

decision aids [that] will be integrated into on-board software and will help airborne battle managers and pilots maintain situation awareness, recommend tasks for platforms and systems, and generate detailed execution plans. This capability will enable execution of complex kill chains in real time, improve the speed of response, and keep workload manageable while maintaining positive human control.

Translated from Pentagonese, that means a way for military commanders to coordinate and control aircraft, including autonomous and robotic ones, without removing human control from kill decisions. DARPA expects future aerial battles to include both manned fighters and drones, and it's trying to figure out how to make that work with the humans still in control.