Adversaries are becoming ever more skilled at denying our communications links. That’s especially bad for pilots who need reliable comms for situational awareness.

“Imagine you can’t talk to each other, but you still need to execute on a mission. It’s almost impossible,” said Jarrod Kallberg, distributed battle management technology development manager at BAE Systems. “A lot of times you have to scrub the mission because you are so reliant on the communication that you cannot proceed without that.”

In search of a fix, BAE Systems is collaborating with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Air Force Research Laboratory. Their emerging solution, called distributed battle management (DBM), promises to enable complex teamwork between manned and unmanned aviation even in comms-deprived environments.

“It could help pilots and operators maintain better situation understanding and make better decisions in terms of assigning tasks across the force as the situation evolves,” said Craig Lawrence, program manager in DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office.

Real-time intel

DBM seeks to leverage artificial intelligence computing techniques to ingest and analyze large amounts of information in real time in an effort to feed pilots an accurate picture of the battle on the ground.

The system takes in Blue Force Tracking data and mission-planning information, while simultaneously tracking and adapting to the changing health of the comms network.

“We are trying to manage information flow. You want to get the right information to the people who need it, at the time they need it,” Kallberg said. “If teammates cannot get onto the same page, they will not be able to execute efficiently. By sharing information across teams, you can build a fuller picture.”

DARPA worries about near-peer adversaries who could attack communications links, making such critical sharing difficult or impossible, Lawrence said.

DBM addresses this through high-speed analytic processing, an AI approach that uses computer-speed thinking to sort messages and prioritize network usage, squeezing the most information down the narrowest pipe. “Given that you may not have all the bandwidth you want, you need a way to determine what you think is important to figure out how you can send it,” Kallberg ssaid.

AI can find ways to tweak a compromised network. “You and I may not be able to directly talk, for example, but there may be another path through which I can reach you, via some intermediary,” Kallberg said.

If it delivers as planned, DBM will do all this automatically, in the background. That’s a crucial capability when one considers the already substantial demands of air combat. With DMB, “you don’t have to figure all this out and also fly the plane. The software will figure it out for you,” he said.

Early wins

The research partners recently announced a successful early flight trial of the emerging system.

In 11 days of flight testing earlier this year, DARPA and AFRL demonstrated the DBM in seven live flights. Even when deprived of full comms capabilities, the system delivers shared situational understanding and coordinated objectives between multiple teams of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles.

“This includes helping our airmen maintain situation awareness, and supporting assignment of tasking across the team, as well as handling details such as routing and payload scheduling for the unmanned systems,” Lawrence said.

The inclusion of those unmanned aircraft is a key component in this evolving capability. As envisioned, DBM will not only keep live pilots linked to one another, but will also serve to keep unmanned assets in the fight even when comms are compromised.

The military isn’t looking to make unmanned aircraft fully autonomous: DBM isn’t intended as a means to launch a self-directed drone combat operation. Rather, the system aims to keep crucial unmanned assets on target at times even when their human operators temporarily cannot get in touch.

“The unmanned vehicle is not going to have the authority to release a weapon without someone checking and saying that’s okay,” Kallberg said. “The software can say when and how they need to take the shot, but it isn’t going to carry that out without human review.”

The DBM program is slated to run until July 2019, with a series of lab and field test events expected. Planners will decide then whether to field the capability and in what context.

To move it forward, engineer say they need to dig deeper into the specific communications needs of combat aviation.