Feb 23 2022

Swarm Intelligence: What Is It and How Are Agencies Using It?

A kind of “hive mind” artificial intelligence has many potential applications for federal government agencies that use satellites and drones.

The Defense Department recently stood up its new chief digital and artificial intelligence office and is piloting AI education programs for thousands of Pentagon employees.

While there has been a great deal of attention on how the federal government could use AI to make work more efficient or analyze data from the battlefield more readily, there are a multitude of other uses for AI and machine learning technology for the government. One of them is known as swarm intelligence.

Swarm intelligence is a field of AI that focuses on the use of artificial intelligence software to enable individual units — drones, satellites or spacecraft — to act in a coordinated way using decentralized control, automation and self-organization.

Though it is still relatively nascent, NASA is testing swarm intelligence for satellites, and the Army and Defense Department are interested in the technology to coordinate drones for war zone applications.

RELATED: How are drones used for scientific research in the government?

What Is Swarm Intelligence?

Swarm intelligence, in the way it is being used by government agencies, involves using AI to enable a constellation of satellites, spacecraft or drones to perform a set of tasks collectively by interacting with each other, instead of being directed by a ground control team, says Sabrina Thompson, an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., who is working on the technology for the space agency.

Thompson says the best way to conceptualize swarm robotics is by thinking about a “hive mind,” with satellites akin to individual bees in a beehive. “They’re doing something collectively in an organized way without too much outside influence,” she says.

In that way, she says, they are learning from one another based on the signals that each unit is sending to other elements in the swarm. “They’re preprogrammed with a mission,” Thompson says, which in NASA’s case includes science goals and collecting information.

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How Do Drone or Satellite Swarms Work?

There are many elements that need to be combined to make swarm intelligence work, according to Thompson, who specializes in the orbital and maneuvering aspects of NASA’s experiments with satellite swarms.

The swarm is driven by whatever the mission is, whether that is collecting scientific data or other applications. The algorithm Thompson developed can be used for both Earth-focused and deep space missions, she says.

In a satellite swarm, once it is determined how many satellites are needed for a specific task, Thompson focuses on designing the orbits of the satellites. Say, for example, that the goal is to observe phenomena, like a cloud forming or a storm. The software would have rules for the task requirements, and then the satellites would, when signaled, form specific geographic configurations to capture the phenomena from different angles.

Using machine learning, the satellites would over time get better at maneuvering around each other to get into new geometric shapes to fulfill their mission. The tasks and mission won’t change, Thompson says, but the satellite swarm will be “learning along the way, and it’s able to do it autonomously and it’s able to do it autonomously better with time.”

EXPLORE: How do multicloud tools enable the storage of data from satellites?

Each spacecraft essentially must know how it has to maneuver relative to all the other spacecraft in the swarm. The satellite needs to maneuver autonomously, not just relative to the target it is focused on but to other nearby satellites in the swarm to avoid hitting them. That AI will be placed into the satellite’s computer systems, according to Thompson.

“The architecture will be smart enough to figure all of this out,” she says. “And it’s all based on the surroundings. It’s based on the instruments that are onboard.”

NASA drone swarm

A SmallSat like this one, working with a swarm of similar spacecraft with more narrow-angle, high-resolution polarimeters, could potentially revolutionize understanding of weather formation and processes. Credits: NASA/SDL/Jose Vanderlei Martins

Meanwhile, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is testing swarm technology for military applications. It is using swarms of more than 250 small unmanned aircraft systems or small unmanned ground systems “to accomplish diverse missions in complex urban environments,” according to a DARPA announcement.

“By leveraging and combining emerging technologies in swarm autonomy and human-swarm teaming, the program seeks to enable rapid development and deployment of breakthrough capabilities,” the announcement reads. Last fall, defense contractors working with DARPA were able to demonstrate these capabilities, C4ISRNET reports.

In addition to human direction, the swarm of drones also demonstrated autonomous capabilities. “For instance, if a user tasked a swarm to investigate or map a building, the system would choose the best or closest ground or air asset to respond without further human input,” C4ISRNET notes.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: How can the armed forces use autonomous vehicles?

How Can Swarm Intelligence Be Used in Government?

There are numerous potential applications for swarm intelligence in government, including within NASA and the DOD. Drone swarms can be used for reconnaissance, technology assessment and war fighting capabilities.

NASA is researching several use cases, according to Thompson. One involves using satellite constellations to conduct climate change research by analyzing cloud formation, how clouds affect the global climate and how clouds over a city affect climate differently than clouds over oceans. Satellite swarms would enable NASA to get multiple views of these cloud formations.

Another potential mission could involve deep space analysis of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, according to Thompson. Satellite swarms could analyze plumes that may be venting water from beneath the icy surface of the moon. Satellite swarms could more easily analyze the elements in the plumes. “That would be hard to do with just one spacecraft,” she says.

Satellite swarms can also help with communication, using their formation to relay information from space back to Earth more quickly. Satellites could switch off on which ones were collecting data and which ones were serving as “communicator” assets based on their proximity to Earth. Thompson says that some satellites already in orbit could be updated with AI software to take part in a swarm.

Many of these concepts are still in development, Thompson says, and need to be simulated on the ground, potentially using drones “just to be able to really simulate how this whole thing would work before it actually gets up there in space for a technology demonstration.”

With drone swarms, the Army, in addition to DARPA, is exploring how the technology could be applied on the battlefield. “Drone swarms can be dispatched to blanket an area with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities; build-in redundancy so a mission can continue if one is destroyed; or even become explosives themselves programmed to detonate upon impact,” The National Interest reports.

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