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A program based on advanced algorithms designed to turn small air and ground systems into team members that could autonomously perform tasks dangerous for humans was recently demonstrated. Tasks include pre-mission reconnaissance in a hostile urban setting or searching damaged structures for survivors following an earthquake. The demonstration was carried out by DARPA’s Fast Lightweight Autonomy (FLA) program, at the completion of Phase 2 flight tests.

Building on Phase 1 flight tests in 2017, researchers refined their software and adapted commercial sensors to achieve greater performance with smaller, lighter quadcopters, according to Aerial tests showed significant progress in urban outdoor as well as indoor autonomous flight scenarios, including:

  • Flying at increased speeds between multi-story buildings and through tight alleyways while identifying objects of interest;
  • Flying through a narrow window into a building and down a hallway searching rooms and creating a 3-D map of the interior; and
  • Identifying and flying down a flight of stairs and exiting the building through an open doorway.

FLA’s algorithms could lead to effective human-machine teams on the battlefield, where a small air or ground vehicle might serve as a scout autonomously searching unknown environments and bringing back useful reconnaissance information to a human team member.

During Phase 2, a team of engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Draper Laboratory reduced the number of onboard sensors to lighten their air vehicle for higher speed.

Using neural nets, the onboard computer recognizes roads, buildings, cars, and other objects and identifies them as such on the map, providing clickable images as well. The human team member could download the map and images from the onboard processor after the mission is completed.

Additionally, the MIT/Draper team incorporated the ability to sync data collected by the air vehicle with a handheld app called the Android Tactical Assault Kit (ATAK), which is already deployed to military forces.

The platform’s reduced weight and size brought new challenges, since the sensors and computers used in Phase 1 were too heavy for the smaller vehicle.

The next step will be packing even more computation onto smaller platforms, potentially making a smart UAV for troops or first responders that is small enough to fit in the palm of the hand.