DARPA recently tested three drones for its Fast Lightweight Autonomy program. The goal was a sensor laden quadcopter that could fly autonomously with a tartget speed of 20 meters a second. The three that flew threw a through a cluttered hangar in Massachusetts were deemed a success.
According to a release from DARPA the aim of the program is to “develop and test algorithms that could reduce the amount of processing power, communications, and human intervention needed for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to accomplish low-level tasks, such as navigation around obstacles in a cluttered environment. If successful, FLA would reduce operator workload and stress and allow humans to focus on higher-level supervision of multiple formations of manned and unmanned platforms as part of a single system . . . The program seeks to develop and demonstrate autonomous UAVs small enough to fit through an open window and able to fly at speeds up to 20 meters per second (45 miles per hour)—while avoiding objects within complex indoor spaces independent of communication with outside operators or sensors and without reliance on GPS.”
The three teams that developed quadcopters were Draper (teamed with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology); University of Pennsylvania; and Scientific Systems Company, Inc. (SSCI), (teamed with AeroVironment.)
DARPA did not report which team performed best, however they all worked from a common quadcopter UAV platform which uses a commercial DJI Flamewheel 450 airframe, E600 motors with 12″ propellers, and 3DR Pixhawk autopilot—is capable of achieving the required flight speed of 20 meters per second while carrying high-definition onboard cameras and other sensors, such as LIDAR, sonar and inertial measurement units. During the testing, researchers also demonstrated initial autonomous capabilities, such as “seeing” obstacles and flying around them at slow speed unaided by a human controller.
“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 FLA program’s initial focus is on UAVs, but advances made through the program could potentially be applied to ground, marine and underwater systems, which could be especially useful in GPS-degraded or denied environments.
Here is a video couresy of DARPA