U.S. military seeks new UAV perception technology

The U.S. military is seeking new technology to enable small unmanned aerial vehicles to operate autonomously within buildings and other complex and confined indoor spaces.
By Richard Tomkins   |   Dec. 31, 2014 at 10:37 AM

WASHINGTON, Dec. 31 (UPI) -- The U.S. military is seeking the development of enhanced unmanned aerial vehicle technology for autonomous operations within complex indoor spaces.

The technologies would allow small UAVs -- small enough to fit through a window -- to fly as fast as 45 miles per hour and navigate without the communications from operators while within a building.

"Birds of prey and flying insects exhibit the kinds of capabilities we want for small UAVs," said Mark Micire, the project manager for the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency. "Goshawks, for example, can fly very fast through a dense forest without smacking into a tree. Many insects, too, can dart and hover with incredible speed and precision.

"The goal of the FLA program is to explore non-traditional perception and autonomy methods that would give small UAVs the capacity to perform in a similar way, including an ability to easily navigate tight spaces at high speed and quickly recognize if it had already been in a room before."

FLA stands for Fast Lightweight Autonomy program, for which the agency has issued a Broad Agency Announcement solicitation.

DARPA said algorithms developed in the program could enhance unmanned system capabilities by reducing the amount of processing power, communications, and human intervention needed for low-level tasks, and that although the initial focus of the program is UAVs the technology could be applied to ground, marine and underwater systems that would operate in environments where GPS wasn't available.

"Urban and disaster relief operations would be obvious key beneficiaries, but applications for this technology could extend to a wide variety of missions using small and large unmanned systems linked together with manned platforms as a system of systems," said Stefanie Tompkins, director of DARPA's Defense Sciences Office.

"By enabling unmanned systems to learn 'muscle memory' and perception for basic tasks like avoiding obstacles, it would relieve overload and stress on human operators so they can focus on supervising the systems and executing the larger mission."

The FLA program is for enhanced perception capabilities instead of the design of new vehicles. As such, DARPA said it will supply selected candidate companies with a small UAV test.

Earlier this year, HRL Laboratories' Center for Neural and Emergent Systems tested a DARPA-funded prototype neuromorphic chip that enabled a miniature drone custom-built by Aerovironment to "learn" on the fly, sensing unique wall and object patterns in three different rooms it had never entered before.

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