A U.S. Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Atlantic team is developing a computer vision-based system in which a four-rotor drone follows a warfighter to provide 360-degree situational awareness from above.
The system, called Second Sight, includes a semi-autonomous “quadcopter” drone operating at a predefined altitude to follow a warfighter wearing a thermal tag. The drone has a camera that streams to the warfighter, giving views beyond hills, of the tops of buildings and all around. The warfighter carries a tablet he or she can look at and, if needed, use to control the drone.
On the ground during combat, situational awareness — the ability to see what’s in the vicinity and anticipate what’s not — can mean the difference between life and death. The situational awareness Second Sight provides would eliminate the need for warfighters on patrol to dedicate a person to control the drone. The system is easy to deploy, cost effective and features an airframe that can be made on a 3-D printer, allowing for in-field replacement, if needed.
“NIWC Atlantic scientists and engineers are actively pursuing drone capabilities to help Marines keep the advantage on the battlefield while meeting the challenges of the future operating environment,” said NIWC Atlantic Acting Executive Director and former Marine Peter Reddy. “Second Sight is the kind of information and communications capability that enhances and further empowers the Marine Rifle Squad and other small units, as called for in the 38th Commandant’s Planning Guidance.”
Second Site gives the warfighter a 360-degree view without having to repivot or move the quadcopter. The all government Second Sight team includes Electrical Engineer Joshua deMedici; Computer Engineer Elexander Fryer, who made the computer vision; Computer Scientists James Prince and Eduardo Abreu-Hidalgo, who both worked on the tablet/cell phone application; and Machine Learning Specialist Yevgeniy Sher, who was the principal investigator before recently departing NIWC Atlantic.
The idea for Second Sight came after hearing Marine Corps leadership talking about the need to develop a technology that could replace a Marine controller in the field. deMedici had worked with small quadcopters in the NIWC Atlantic’s Ultra High Frequency (UHF) satellite communications area, Prince had worked on Marine Corps Electronic Security Systems, and Sher had been developing a machine learning algorithm for drones.
The team had been working on the project for about three months before deMedici, Prince and Fryer demonstrated the capabilities at the Advanced Naval Technology Exercise (ANTX) East held at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, in July. ANTX East provided government, industry and academic innovators a chance to test technology prototypes improving warfighters’ maneuver, logistics and force protection capabilities.
Prince, Fryer and deMedici briefed Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition James Geurts, Assistant Commandant of Marine Corps Gen. Gary Thomas, other leadership and assessors when they stopped by the Second Sight tent at ANTX. “They gave us a lot of really good ideas on where we can go from here, positive feedback on things we’ve already done and some possible concerns they had, so it was really helpful,” deMedici said.
Feedback from Marines testing equipment at ANTX was also helpful, since they would be the eventual users of the system. Someone asked, for example, what happens if the warfighters go into a building. “It can hover outside and wait for them,” said Prince. “That was a good question that gave us something to think about from the user’s point of view.”
While the system is tested, the team is refining the technology and making changes based on input from warfighters and leadership at ANTX. They have developed an app that lets Marines see the camera feed or control the drone from a handheld device, and are looking at providing the camera feed to other warfighters besides the one being followed.
Given the low cost of the drone, deMedici and Prince are hopeful to prove the Second Sight concept for widespread use by warfighters.
“The system itself costs about $1,000, but it can help warfighters understand the combat situation and make sound decisions more quickly,” Prince said.
DeMedici agreed. “Second Sight will give warfighters a better overview of what’s going on around them using drones and technology. That’s an ability they don’t currently have,” he said.