AFRL and UK partner, Dstl, bring together worldwide competitive AI experts with Swarm and Search Capture the Flag Challenge

  • Published
  • By Emily Rivera
  • Air Force Research Laboratory Public Affairs
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) A collaborative challenge formulated by the Air Force Research Laboratory in the United States and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, or Dstl, in the United Kingdom brought together competitive AI experts from around the world in its second iteration since the program began in 2019.
This year’s competition, which opened in early May, culminates with a final, single-elimination showcase event August 20. During the event, spectators will hear the top five team’s competition and technical strategies along with a visualization of their final submission. Chief Scientist of the Air Force, Dr. Victoria Coleman, and AFRL Executive Director Timothy Sakulich will provide remarks at the final event.
The Capture the Flag challenge made use of the Multi-Agent Simulation Suite, developed for AFRL by Georgia Tech Research Institute. The established scrimmage simulator was further refined for this challenge to promote ease of use and integration with autonomous AI agents. Competitors then built autonomous agents to control a small swarm of simulated drones and competed head-to-head against other agents to “Capture the Flag” of the opposing team. Successfully capturing the flag and returning it to the capturing team’s home base resulted in a victory for that team. The scenarios were carefully designed to ensure realistic conditions, and complex behaviors were needed to win. The AI agents had to learn when to use speed versus stealth, when to attack versus defend, and to remember recent events to adapt their strategies accordingly.
In the early stages of the competition, the teams were able to play in friendly matches to learn how their agents reacted to the other players' agents. The friendly matches were critical as only resilient and adaptable AI agents would go on to succeed.
“Partners like AFRL and Dstl must deliver operational capability to our Air, Space and Cyber Warfighters who share a culture of urgency to outpace future threats,” said Mick Hitchcock, AFRL’s program manager for the Swarm and Search Capture the Flag Challenge. “The goal of this annual challenge is to attract the best and brightest minds to solve autonomy and AI problems and to spark innovation.”
The culture of urgency is a shared one, as Dstl’s Autonomous Systems Group Leader Tim Wright commented, “Once again, Dstl and AFRL have come together in partnership to demonstrate how the power of collaboration can deliver amazing results. The power of AI has enormous potential for our two nations and it is developing really quickly, so we must think in even more agile ways, have an appetite for innovation and discovery, and a daring approach to trialing new things – or failing fast so that we can learn from and share our combined experiences.”
This year’s theme – “Capture the Flag” – builds on the 2019 competition to generate vigorous and mature AI algorithms for the U.S. and UK defense communities. This Capture the Flag Challenge could have significant impact for military and first responder usage, according to Hitchcock.
“This is the kind of collaboration that can rapidly advance and mature AI technology,” noted WBI’s Director of Marketing and Communications, Jennie Hempstead. “Someday, these algorithms may save the lives of first responders in our community or military forces across the globe. It’s exciting to be a part of that.”
“The event is less about the technology and more about partnering with Dstl and the university and small businesses engaged in the competition,” Hitchcock said. “It’s all about the power of these groups coming together on a common problem and generating innovative ideas that can yield real world solutions.”
"This competition has made us all better engineers,” said Alex Service, a participant in the challenge. When asked about his team’s approach, he said they reframed the competition objective by asking, “What’s the best way to solve this problem with the time we’ve been given?” “It’s a question any good engineer will ask,” he said.
Winning submissions will enjoy increased exposure within the defense and technical communities at a variety of conferences and at defense and public-facing events in the United States and the United Kingdom, fostering the opportunity to explore potential career opportunities with AFRL or Dstl. As an added bonus, the winning team will also receive an in-person congratulatory message from the Chief Scientist of the Air Force and be featured on AFRL’s podcast, Lab Life.
As this year’s challenge comes to a close, all parties are looking to capitalize on the outcomes for future research. The event organizers look forward to receiving feedback on this event and are open to suggestions for topics for next year’s event. Stay tuned to AFRL and Dstl’s social media platforms for SSAI 2022 announcements, and check out for more information on this year’s game.
About AFRL
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,000 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit: