A $5 million grant from the U.S. Air Force will fund a research team led by N.C. A&T State University that will develop control systems for a new dimension in battlefield strategy: large teams of unmanned vehicles. The five-year project will expand the use of autonomous vehicles, such as drones, to a larger and more diverse scale.

The vision is to manage future battlefields with autonomous vehicles working together in the air, on the ground and/or underwater. The vehicles could be controlled remotely by human operators or they could maneuver autonomously in complex environments. Teams of autonomous vehicles working in concert with soldiers, sailors and fliers would be capable of a variety of cooperative missions, such as surveillance and reconnaissance.

“The concept of systems of vehicles is new,” says Dr. Abdollah Homaifar, Duke Energy Eminent Professor of computer engineering at N.C. A&T and leader of the project. “It’s about teaming and cooperation among the autonomous vehicles. “Teams of these vehicles could provide an advantage on the battlefield, but we need to learn how to move beyond controlling, for example, one drone at a time, and how they can work together. These are complex systems that will operate together in extreme conditions.”

The funding will allow N.C. A&T to establish the multidisciplinary Center for Testing, Evaluation and Control of Heterogeneous Large-Scale Autonomous Vehicles. The university’s partners on the project will be the University of Texas at San Antonio and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute, a national tribal community college, in Albuquerque, N.M. The project will build on the team’s years of research in robotics, control, machine learning and expert systems.