Thinking Tech

How gamers are helping build the next generation of anti-submarine drones

How gamers are helping build the next generation of anti-submarine drones

Posting in Design

With a free computer game, DARPA hopes to employ legions of gamers to help train the submarine-hunting drones of the future.

Government-funded video games are nothing new. 2002 saw the release of America's Army, a first-person shooter intended as a recruitment tool. The Department of Homeland Security later released Zero Hour: America's Medic, which it hoped would help government agencies train first responders. NASA even released an odd little game called Moonbase: Alpha, which was transformed in short order from an educational tool into a vehicle for absurd humor.

One can only hope DARPA's new game, ACTUV Tactics, doesn't suffer the same fate as Moonbase. Why? Because unlike other government-developed games, ACTUV is intended to provide help in designing an actual, planned anti-submarine drone:

Tracking a submarine is dangerous and difficult mission for conventional Navy systems. If a robotic vessel could be built to do the job, it might offer more reliable ways to keep track of the subs and free up valuable ships and crews for other vital missions. DARPA has studied the problem and come up with a concept for a vessel that looks like it has the right tools for the job. But what would be the best way to use these new tools? What behaviors should the future ACTUV computers employ in order to follow a submarine? What are the best tactics for ACTUV to acquire and track a submarine while safely navigating, complying with the “Rules of the Road,” and dealing with all of the challenges of operating at sea? That's where the ACTUV Tactics simulation is designed to help.

Here's the idea: ACTUV Tactics puts players in different simulated sub-chaser configurations, leaves them to figure out the best way to find and follow enemy submarines. The sim even includes commercial shipping traffic, which players have to navigate around.

This will be an unfamiliar type of gameplay for just about anyone--when's the last time you played a submarine simulator?--so I suspect that developing strategies will be a process of trial and error, at least at first. once players have refined their methods, they can submit scores to a public leaderboard.

It's after players get competitive and come up with unusual or clever gameplay strategies, ACTUV starts to get really interesting. Players' techniques are monitored and (voluntarily) sent to DARPA, which hopes to use them to help develop the actual ACTUV's (That stands for Antisubmarine Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel, by the way) software, which it'll use to chase actual submarines.

Whether this game is able to build enough of a player base to net useful results for DARPA remains to be seen, and the game's promo video won't get seasoned gamers' hearts pumping. But hey, it's free. And America's Army was a runaway success, so who knows!

Then there are the ethical issues: While this game doesn't have players sinking subs or killing enemies, it's safe to say that submarine tracking is often synonymous with submarine hunting--you know, combat. How is asking gamers to help refine a sub-tracking drone's software ethically distinct from asking them to help refine, say, the software that governs the weapons systems on Predator drones?

If you'd like to give ACTUV a shot, it's available for here. And if you're uncomfortable with the game's concept, don't worry--you can opt out of the strategy submission aspect with the click of a mouse. [Popular Science]

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John Herrman

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Herrman is a freelance writer based in New York City. He is also contributing editor at Gizmodo. He holds a degree from the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure