Flying eyes

A fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles will co-operate with a ground robot on surveillance tasks in the Australian Outback, in trials to be held next year by BAE Systems.

The series of trials are being organised by researchers at the company’s Advanced Technology Centre (ATC), to demonstrate its autonomous systems, data fusion and artificial intelligence technologies.

The first of the trials, to be held next month with funding from the MoD, will see the team fly the fleet of small UAV research vehicles, fitted with a number of sensors, in a data-gathering exercise. This information will be used to develop algorithms to allow the UAVs to co-operate with each other and act in response to information gathered by aerial and ground sensors, in a trial to be held later in the year.

This trial will in turn be followed by another demonstration towards the end of 2005, in which the UAVs will communicate and co-operate with a robot on the ground, said Dr Phil Greenway, head of advanced information processing at the ATC at Filton near Bristol.

‘We hope to deploy a land vehicle in some preliminary experiments, where we would have air vehicles gathering information, and we will look at how they would interact with something on the ground, perhaps by giving it information it can use to decide where it should move to, to participate in the sensing task,’ he said.

The two latter experiments will be funded either by the MoD, BAE Systems, or potentially both, said Greenway. Each of the trials is being carried out in co-operation with researchers at the University of Sydney.

The ATC team will also carry out further experiments in the UK to investigate the use of autonomous systems in urban environments, in which a decentralised network of unattended ground sensors and cameras will feed information to a robot, which will then respond to any perceived threat.

‘We will start to look at how these different systems fit together, the kind of information they can provide, the quality of the decision making we can produce on the back of it, and how quickly we can respond to an emerging threat,’ said Greenway.

The technology could be used in a wide range of security situations, and could also be extended to civilian disaster recovery operations, and the team is hoping to work with researchers at universities, including Southampton, to investigate this area, said Andy Wright, executive scientist at the ATC.

The team has already carried out some experiments with the technology at the Filton site, in which a network of sensors and cameras, operating without a central control unit, tracked a person approaching a designated exclusion zone, and alerted the robot to intercept the intruder. Camera images are compressed to allow information to be distributed wirelessly among each of the system’s components.

To allow the system to deal with uncertainties such as incomplete observations, problems with sensors or deliberate attempts to fool it by enemy forces, the team is using Bayesian network technology. These networks, based on statistical pattern recognition, use probability theory to cope with such uncertainties.

The technology is likely to be used first in decision aids for military operators, which will ultimately provide information for the operator on the context surrounding any decision, the possible options for that decision, and the likely consequences of each of those options.

The team recently tested out the decision aid technology on military operators, said Wright. ‘Part of our programme this year has been operator assessment, assessing the operator’s capability with or without the decision aid. So we have been doing human factors experiments, to demonstrate from a scientific point of view what the advantages of these systems are.’

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