The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is experimenting with the use of commercial drones. The agency has announced a new program designed to explore and develop new ways to reduce the amount of processing power, communication and human intervention needed to perform low-level tasks with drones. The Fast Lightweight Autonomy (FLA) program recently completed the initial phase of its data collection, where its quadcopters were able to avoid obstacles going 20 meters per second.
“We’re excited that we were able to validate the airspeed goal during this first-flight data collection,” said Mark Micire, DARPA program manager. “The fact that some teams also demonstrated basic autonomous flight ahead of schedule was an added bonus. The challenge for the teams now is to advance the algorithms and onboard computational efficiency to extend the UAVs’ perception range and compensate for the vehicles’ mass to make extremely tight turns and abrupt maneuvers at high speeds.”
The technology expected to come from the FLA program could help rescue teams responding to natural disasters and other emergency situations. The program is working on developing a new class of algorithms that aim to give drones the ability to quickly navigate through rooms, stairways, corridors and other obstacle-filled environments without a remote pilot or reliance on GPS.
“Very lightweight UAVs exist today that are agile and can fly faster than 20 meters per second, but they can’t carry the sensors and computation to fly autonomously in cluttered environments,” Micire said. “And large UAVs exist that can fly high and fast with heavy computing payloads and sensors on board. What makes the FLA program so challenging is finding the sweet spot of a small size, weight and power air vehicle with limited onboard computing power to perform a complex mission completely autonomously.”
The initial test took place at the Otis Air National Guard Base in Cape Code, Mass., and was completed with the help of three research teams: Draper who teamed with MIT, the University of Pennsylvania, and Scientific Systems Company, which teamed up with AeroVironment.
The program will initially focus on UAVs, but as advances are made it could move its tests to ground, marine and underwater systems.