Since World War II the military has invested in research and development of vehicles that can be operated by remote control or Artificial Intelligence (AI), taking the pilot out of potentially dangerous situations. These vehicles are also known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), Unmanned Airborne Vehicles (UAV), Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs), and Drones, among other names.

Industry has also recognized the importance these vehicles have for military and commercial implementation and has done a great deal to advance the technology. Educational institutions have also come to understand the significance of this major work and committed time, money, and intellectual resources into UAS development. Recent technology improvements and component miniaturization have increased the technical capabilities of small UAS.

Cooperative communication in UAVs is the ability to send information between multiple UAVs in the air working together for a unified purpose or mission. The information shared may be a variety of data, such as navigation parameters; location information; or Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR). The capability to cooperatively navigate presents an opportunity to increase autonomy in UAVs. Autonomy in UAVs enables them to process data on-board while they are airborne in order to communicate with one another without the need to relay information through a ground station.

The ability for several UAVs to work together in an autonomous manner using cooperative communication has a myriad of military applications, including enemy or target detection, confusion effect, resource balancing, duty relief, and centralized information. The demand for UAVs has exploded since they were first introduced; however, there is still a lack of understanding and knowledge regarding:

  • Which open source components can be integrated to achieve airborne cooperative control for military applications;

  • How to integrate commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) on-board processing for cooperative control;

  • Performance improvement for airborne onboard processing versus ground-based processing; and

  • Which new applications are possible for low-cost airborne autonomy.

The Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap FY2011-2036 has a vision which encourages the use of COTS to avoid stove-piped and proprietary solutions which are expensive; it suggests that inexpensive open-source COTS components can foster creativity and innovation. This Roadmap’s executive summary identifies autonomy as the second highest challenge facing the Department of Defense (DoD) with regards to unmanned systems and confirms that today’s technology requires a high level of human interaction.

The United States Air Force Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047 mentions a plan to develop a UAS pilot career in order to relieve the UAS manpower burden. The goal is to have a single pilot control one, two, or even a swarm of autonomous UAS vehicles. One solution is developing the capability for cooperative communication to control multiple UAVs and reduce the number of operators required to execute UAS missions. Use of open- source COTS components to realize this capability presents a low-cost and flexible solution.

The ultimate purpose of this research was to enable two UAVs to use cooperative communication directly from one UAV to the other UAV, using the ground station only as a monitoring link, but not as the main relay for communication. Another purpose was to streamline the equipment required and thus reduce communication latency and improve responsiveness; responsiveness is important in dynamic environments.

The figure displays in black lines the current configuration that requires one Ground Control Station (GCS) per UAV deployed. The proposed configuration is shown in red lines and consists of one GCS to control at least two UAVs in flight formation.

This work was done by Lidia Toscano for the Air Force Institute of Technology. AFRL-0290


This Brief includes a Technical Support Package (TSP).
Effectiveness of Inter-Vehicle Communications and On-Board Processing for Close Unmanned Autonomous Vehicle Flight Formations

(reference AFRL-0290) is currently available for download from the TSP library.

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This article first appeared in the May, 2020 issue of Aerospace & Defense Technology Magazine.

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