DARPA’s Fast Lightweight Autonomy (FLA) program recently completed Phase 2 flight tests, demonstrating advanced algorithms designed to turn small air and ground systems into team members that could autonomously perform tasks dangerous for humans – such as pre-mission reconnaissance in a hostile urban setting or searching damaged structures for survivors following an earthquake.
Building on Phase 1 flight tests in 2017, researchers refined their software and adapted commercial sensors to achieve greater performance with smaller, lighter quadcopters. Conducted in a mock town at the Guardian Centers training facility in Perry, Georgia, 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.
“The outstanding university and industry research teams working on FLA honed algorithms that in the not too distant future could transform lightweight, commercial-off-the-shelf air or ground unmanned vehicles into capable operational systems requiring no human input once you’ve provided a general heading, distance to travel, and specific items to search,” said J.C. Ledé, DARPA program manager. “Unmanned systems equipped with FLA algorithms need no remote pilot, no GPS guidance, no communications link, and no pre-programmed map of the area – the onboard software, lightweight processor, and low-cost sensors do all the work autonomously in real-time.”
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. Without needing communications links to the launch vehicle, the chances of an adversary detecting troop presence based on radio transmissions is reduced, which adds further security and safety, Ledé said. This could be particularly important in a search-and-rescue scenario, where an FLA-equipped platform could search in radio silence behind enemy lines for a downed pilot or crew member.
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