What if a drone could fly straight through your window at 45 miles per hour and zip around inside while navigating and gathering data all by itself?
That would be very bad news for bad guys. Hiding inside structures, keeping hostages hidden inside buildings and more would just be ineffective.
DARPA's new Fast Lightweight Autonomy (FLA) program aims to create these small, fast drones. These little guys will be able to fly really quickly covering 20 meters in just one second — a speed that means the drone can also keep up with the pace of tactical operations.
Birds in the wild, like the goshawk that DARPA has been studying, are capable of adeptly maneuvering at these rapid speeds, but for drones to do so it will require the development of new autonomous flight mechanisms.
How would they be useful?
Military tactical units and first responders frequently have to contend with complex and dangerous urban environments where this sort of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) could provide lots of advantages.
Currently, teams have to rely on remotely piloted UAVs to perform tasks like providing a bird's-eye view of a situation and to spot threats that could not be seen from the ground.
Flying UAVs high above the scene looking down provides useful, yet limited information.
For instance, during a hostage rescue, a small, fast autonomous drone could penetrate a protected area, investigate inside buildings, gather information, and ultimately locate a hostage's exact location.
If a similar hostage rescue were to be carried out without drones, a team would have to physically enter an adversary's building. If this type of drone could be deployed, risk to on-the-ground teams would be reduced.
To be practical for these kinds of tactical operations, the drone is designed to be small in size, lightweight and operate at minimal power and cost. The drones are also planned to travel at a range of over 3,000 feet and run for about 10 minutes during missions.
While this kind of drone is ideal for carrying out military urban operations, it could also be very useful for humanitarian intervention and disaster relief operations.
For example, rescue teams that respond to disasters like floods, hurricanes, or earthquakes could deploy the drones to quickly locate survivors trapped in collapsed buildings.
Agile like a hawk
Without using predetermined waypoints or GPS, birds and flying insects are able to maneuver precisely at high speeds through a series of obstacles like branches and trees in a densely wooded area.
The DARPA program seeks to replicate this skill in its robots so that they can navigate tight spaces by themselves and recognize potential obstacles if it has been in specific location previously.
The program will yield a new class of algorithms that will make it possible for these small, fast drones to navigate through a maze of rooms, corridors, and stairways all by themselves.
The main focus of this project is to not merely build smaller UAVs, but instead to greatly advance a machine's perception. By doing so, a drone's reliance on human operators could be removed.
Traditionally, human pilots operate small UAVs. The pilot remotely controls the drone by either watching it directly or by tele-operating viewing data from the machine's sensors. If a drone encounters an obstacle or the communications channel between machine and operator is disturbed, the robot's speed may need to be decreased manually.
Another traditional approach to controlling small drones is programming GPS coordinates as waypoints to give the drone a set flight path. But this isn't the most effective approach, given that the GPS system could jam or fail to operate well indoors.
Taking the human operator out of the equation provides a lot more flexibility. It also makes using drones more efficient. And a drone that could function in places where communication and GPS are unavailable – or denied by an adversary – would be a great advantage to the military.
Although the current focus is on unmanned aerial vehicles, advances made through the FLA program also have great potential for ground and underwater unmanned systems that need to operate in GPS-degraded or denied environments.
DARPA has issued a Broad Agency Announcement solicitation for the program. DARPA scheduled a webcast Proposers Day on Jan. 6 from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., EST. Registration for the webcast closes Friday, Jan. 2. The full proposal due date is Feb. 5. For more information, visit http://go.usa.gov/MC2Q.
Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has traveled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie.