Two Cambridge groups have been awarded a $3.4 million grant to develop insect drones: tiny, autonomous, and fast-flying drones that mimic the flight capabilities of birds and insects. Draper, Inc. and MIT researcher Nicholas Roy have been granted the funds by DARPA as part of the “Fast, Lightweight, Autonomy” (FLA) program. The two teams will collaborate on the project.
The FLA program calls for the development of high-speed, autonomous drones to navigate in cluttered indoor environments, such as a structurally damaged building. The DARPA solicitation states: “Birds and flying insects maneuver easily at high speeds near obstacles. The FLA program asks the question “How can autonomous flying robotic systems achieve similar high-speed performance?” The solicitation specifies that the new technology must work without a communications or GPS system to navigate, as the method fails where GPS is lost or not available. “Birds and flying insects are able to perform well without using predetermined waypoints or an external position reference system,” the requirements documents state.
Basing the speed goal of the program on the “performance of existing animals (e.g. birds)” the new drones will be required to meet a 45 mph speed goal. Other requirements include an autonomous range of 1km and a flight duration of up to 10 minutes. DARPA says that the FLA technology could assist first responders by providing surveillance in “denied areas” such as structurally damaged buildings.
“Developing a system that can recognize and respond to its environment quickly while flying nearly 45 miles per hour in a real world environment presents considerable challenges,” said Steve Paschall, Draper’s FLA technical director. “Our sensing and algorithm configurations must enable the vehicle to demonstrate agile maneuvering, high reliability, and safety, as any errors at high speed could be catastrophic. Such high speeds dictate that the vehicle handle planning and control with low-latency sensing and processing.”
MIT researcher Nicholas Roy, of MIT’s CSAIL (Computer Science Artificial Intelligence Laboratory) will lead the MIT team. Roy has recently returned to Cambridge after working with Google X on the Google’s “Project Wing” delivery drone.