University of Maryland researchers will be devising strategies for drones and various ground vehicles for the military, thanks to a grant from a U.S. Department of Defense agency that invests in these technologies.

Robot swarms, which researchers aim to create strategies for building, are groups of airborne vehicles — also known as drones or unmanned aerial vehicles — and on-ground tools deployed in dangerous areas that are used for surveillance and to identify security risks, among other ventures, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency spokesman Jared Adams said, adding that these drone swarms will not be lethal and will be used only for intelligence collection.

"It is time-intensive for group forces to go in and clear the area of insurgents or bad actors, and every time you put boots on ground, you put lives at risk," Adams said. "Using UAVs decreases that risk."

The $646,000 grant covers the next nine months of research; it will cover aspects from personnel hires to material costs such as computers or coding software, said principal investigator Huan Xu, a professor in this university's aerospace engineering department. About five graduate students and four undergraduate students will assist the four faculty members part of this grant, Xu said.

The researchers are not building physical materials, but are instead developing algorithms and computer code that can be used for the robots, Xu said.

"This is a topic I think is really interesting, and it's a great chance to collaborate with faculty members in aerospace engineering and also part of computer science and [computer engineering]," Xu said. "[We] all come from different backgrounds, and I am really exited to tackle both the subject and work with the people in this group."

The focus of the OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics, or OFFSET program, is to develop swarm system technology, specifically in urban areas. The researchers' ultimate goal is to create swarms of 250 or more robots, Xu said.

"If we have a situation where we are trying to use the swarms to find a lost child or to help resolve a hostage situation, then the best thing the swarm can do is to help the person on the ground have the most up-to-date information so that human can make the best possible decision as fast as possible," said professor Michael Otte. "The swarms will be sent to dangerous situations and give information back to the human."

Otte said a difficult aspect of this research will be creating algorithms to make sure the robots don't bump into each other, adding that when the amount of robots used in a swarm increases, "you have a lot of moving pieces working around each other, and that's challenging."

"If you are in a stadium full of people, and everyone needs to get outside after the game is over, then you need to not bump into everyone around you," he said, "and most times this works out, but sometimes it doesn't and there are horrible cases of stampedes at stadiums. … It's a simple problem for people to solve most of the time, but hard for robots."

The use of drones in the military is a controversial topic, with some people against the use of these aircrafts in combat. Most recently, on April 4, thousands of Google employees signed a letter to its CEO, Sundar Pichai, urging the company to end a contract with the Defense Department. The letter states that "Google should not be in the business of war," and asks the company to pull out of a specific Pentagon pilot program — which could be used to improve the targeting of drone strikes — and announce a policy to never build "warfare technology."

"It's easy to forget that we already use [multi-agent systems] for numerous everyday applications, like building cars and helping Amazon package our shipments more quickly," Otte said. "Like any piece of technology, it's a tool, and, like a hammer, can be used to build a house or to hurt someone if you misapply it."