DARPA's team of scientists showcased their progress in autonomous flight with a video of a quadcopter drone that flies at 45 mph without human piloting.
Two years ago, DARPA has challenged researchers to build a drone small enough to fly indoors at speeds of 45 mph and avoid hitting any obstacles. An extra condition for the project was that the UAV would be independent of human guidance.
The agency dubbed the program Fast Lightweight Autonomy (FLA) and notes that inspiration for the device comes from the goshawk, a bird of prey that sports the ability to fly through dense woods with perfect obstacle-avoiding capability.
FLA registers serious progress in the latest video demonstration. In it, we see a sensor-packed drone buzzing around at 45 mph and majestically navigating an obstacle course. The test took place in a Cape Cod Air Force base, and checks all the requirements that the agency set to achieve in 2014.
According to DARPA, the drone is based on a commercial DJI Flamewheel that was rigged with a 3DR Pixhawk autopilot for the airframe. In spite of its tiny airframe, the flying gadget carries inertia sensors, HD camera and sonar at high speeds without breaking a sweat.
It should be noted that in the video below, no human interaction with the drone took place. This means that the fast flying quadcopter flew autonomously.
As its next step, DARPA aims to improve the onboard algorithms so that the drone flies further and is more precise in its trajectory. The agency also wants to teach the UAV to take sharp turns and do quick aerial maneuvers without losing speed.
In the video, it is visible that the drone slows down significantly when facing an obstacle head-on. But this is about to change in the near future, the scientists promise.
Mark Micire, DARPA's program manager underlines that FLA is valuable due to its balanced combo of size, speed and capabilities. Other models of drones are lighter and fast but carry less capability, while others are strong enough to have a myriad of add-ons, but lack in speed or maneuverability.
The agency says that as the drone's capabilities increase, the Massachusetts training course will get increasingly complex.
The researchers behind the LARP project know that progress comes through a long series of failures, so they humorously added a few crash sequences in the video, for authenticity purposes. Even if it hurts a little to see the ultra-expensive high-tech piece of flying aircraft go down, the rest of the video is promising.
"What makes the FLA program so challenging is finding the sweetspot of a small size, weight and power air vehicle with limited onboard computing power to perform a complex mission completely autonomously," DARPA's program manager, Mark Micire, says.
At the LARP's launch, the agency explained that the drone would be useful in surveillance and information gathering for dangerous locations and situations. The UAV would scan an area with its installed microphones, cameras and different sensors then relay the information to the command center.
To further motivate researchers to assist FLA in its search for the perfectly balanced self-flying vehicle, the agency intends to award a number of grants and contracts worth $5.5 million.