ANTs Make Marine Air Operations a Picnic

August 6, 2002

A highly decorated Marine Air Group has just begun streamlining planning and reducing operational risk with a new software system developed by the University of Southern California and Vanderbilt University.

The system, created by scientists at the USC School of Engineering Information Sciences Institute (ISI) and Vanderbilt's Institute for Software Integrated Systems (ISIS), performs in minutes scheduling functions that used to require hours. The first operational schedule produced by the system was accepted for actual use on board a carrier in Japan August 6.

The system was previously extensively tested by Marine Air Group 13 (MAG 13), both in MAG 13's base of operations in Yuma AZ, and on board carriers. MAG 13 was the home unit of such famous Marine pilots as WWII ace Pappy Boyington and astronaut John Glenn. MAG 13 aircraft saw action in the Gulf war and are aboard carriers supporting operations in Afghanistan.

The new system is based on a technology called ANT — Autonomous Negotiating Teamware — which has individual software modules that represent different concerns and goals involved in managing a combat air squadron. The modules communicate with each other, sharing their information, overruling or yielding according to a set of predetermined priorities.

These structured exchanges of requests and counterproposals lead to agreements that become elements of a schedule.

"Creating schedules for a squadron involves balancing a huge number of factors," said Robert Neches, director of ISI's distributed scalable systems division and co-leader of the ISI team responsible for the operations sections of the software. "Pilots want to get the maximum number of flying hours to maintain their ratings and extend their skills. The airspace has to be clear, suitable and acceptably safe for intended operations. Policies and commitments from higher command have to be satisfied. And, of course, the weather changes."

Gabor Karsai, an associate professor in Vanderbilt's department of electrical engineering and computer science, led the team responsible for software modules covering supply and maintenance issues, aircraft preparation and ground equipment.

A novel feature is that the new system simultaneously balances tricky maintenance requirements against operational demands, while considering risks involved with each decision. It considers resource constraints, such as how many mechanics are available, and factors in risks, such as the additional stress of performing many complex procedures simultaneously.

ISI's Neches said that all the variables for operations and maintenance, and their many interactions, add up to thousands of issues that must be settled to make a squadron's schedule for a single day.

"It takes an experienced operations scheduler as much as six hours per day — and lots of time for a maintenance controller as well — to create daily schedules ... that balance ... all [the] variables," said retired Marine Corps. Col. Russ Currer, a Harrier pilot, Joint Strike Fighter Program expert and former commander of MAG-13 who was a key consultant for the researchers. "This software lets them do the job in four minutes."

The new system doesn't schedule operations until alternatives have been reviewed and approved by a human manager. "The operations commander is able to easily investigate possible variations," explained ISI scientist and project co-leader Pedro Szekely. For example, a commander might want pilots to fly at least 15 hours a week. Other factors could make this difficult, while a 10 hour-a-week parameter might result in too much downtime.

The system can help the commander/schedulers perceive choke points, places where everything is held up by one factor, and find ways around the difficulty, said Szekely. This feature attracted the attention of Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Michael A. Hough, who wrote an August 7, 2001 letter to ANT's funders — the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) and the Office of Naval Research (ONR) — that called the system a "gem."

In April, the system was presented to all general-rank Marine air officers. MAG 13's current commanding officer, Col. Mark Savarese, requested operational deployment of the experimental software for all his squadrons, including units going out on operations with Marine Expeditionary Units, after the system compiled outstanding marks in repeated evaluations by senior flight officers.

Neches said many non-military planning tasks requiring complex coordination of numerous variables could use similar software systems. Commercial air, trucking or package-delivery operations are obvious examples, he said.

Besides Neches and Szekeley, ISI researchers Jinbo Chen and Martin Frank and a subcontractor, Crystaliz Inc., of Concord, MA also collaborated on the operations side of the software.

At Vanderbilt researchers on the maintenance module included, in addition to Karsai, project co-leader Benoit Dawant, plus Technical Lead Christopher P. van Buskirk, together with Gabor Szokoli, Himanshu Neema, Jonathan Sprinkle, and Karlkim Suwanmongkol, all from Vanderbilt's Institute for Software Integrated Systems. Jon Doyle, Bob Laddaga, and Vera Ketelboeter of M.I.T., and George Bloor of the Boeing Company assisted them.