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PNT Roundup: DARPA FLA program tests sensor-loaded quadcopters

September 8, 2016  - By

DARPA-FLA-drone

MicroUAVs Self-Navigate Indoors with Inertial, Cameras, More

The sensor-loaded quadcopters edged around obstacles and achieved target speeds of 20 meters per second in a cluttered Massachusetss hangar, during initial data collection for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Fast Lightweight Autonomy (FLA) program.

The project develops and tests algorithms to reduce the amount of processing power, communications and human intervention needed for UAVs to accomplish low-level tasks.

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.

Military teams patrolling dangerous overseas urban environments and rescue teams responding to disasters such as earthquakes or floods currently can use remotely piloted unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to provide a bird’s-eye view of the situation.

But to know what’s going on inside an unstable building or a threatening indoor space often requires physical entry, which can put troops or civilian response teams in danger.

FLA technologies could be especially useful to address this pressing surveillance shortfall by furnishing operatives independent of communication with outside pilots or sensors and without reliance on GPS.

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The platform tested by DARPA researchers uses a commercial DJI Flamewheel 450 airframe, E600 motors with 12-inch propellers, and 3DR Pixhawk autopilot. It carries high-definition onboard cameras and other sensors, such as lidar, sonar and inertial measurement units.

The tests demonstrated autonomous capabilities such as seeing obstacles and flying around them at slow speed unaided by a human controller.

The three performer teams are Draper teamed with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the University of Pennsylvania; and Scientific Systems Company teamed with AeroVironment. Flights and data collection took place at Otis Air National Guard Base in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, with simulated walls, boxes and obstacles to test agility and speed.

The tests did produce several crashes. “The only way to achieve hard goals is to push physical systems and software to the limit,” said program manager Mark Micire. Continuing tests will obstruct the venue with more obstacles and clutter. “What makes the FLA program so challenging is finding the sweet spot of a small size, weight and power air vehicle with limited onboard computing power to perform a complex mission completely autonomously.”

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About the Author:


Alan Cameron is the former editor-at-large of GPS World magazine.

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