Drones

DARPA's fully-loaded quadcopter autonomously navigates an indoor maze at 45 mph

The quadcopter reached speeds of 20 m/s (45 mph)
The quadcopter reached speeds of 20 m/s (45 mph)
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Technician following autonomous quadcopter
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Technician following autonomous quadcopter
The quadcopter flew the course autonomously
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The quadcopter flew the course autonomously
The quadcopter was a DJI Flamewheel 450 airframe
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The quadcopter was a DJI Flamewheel 450 airframe
The quadcopter was equipped with high-definition onboard cameras and other sensors, such as LIDAR, sonar and inertial measurement units
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The quadcopter was equipped with high-definition onboard cameras and other sensors, such as LIDAR, sonar and inertial measurement units
The quadcopter reached speeds of 20 m/s (45 mph)
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The quadcopter reached speeds of 20 m/s (45 mph)

A fully-laden quadcopter recently flew through an indoor obstacle course at 45 mph (72 km/h) as part of DARPA's Fast Lightweight Autonomy (FLA) program. The test flight was conducted entirely under autonomous control with the goal of developing small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) with the ability to navigate through tight spaces without the need for outside control or GPS.

Drones are becoming an increasingly common part of everyday military and civilian life. For the armed forces, they are a way of carrying out reconnaissance or engaging the enemy while keeping soldiers out of harm's way. For civilians, they allow engineers or disaster workers to safely access hazardous environments. The trouble is, drones aren't very good at negotiating cramped, unpredictable spaces – and certainly not at speed.

"Very lightweight UAVs exist today that are agile and can fly faster than 20 meters per second (45 mph), but they can't carry the sensors and computation to fly autonomously in cluttered environments," says Mark Micire, DARPA program manager. "And large UAVs exist that can fly high and fast with heavy computing payloads and sensors on board. 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."

Technician following autonomous quadcopter
Technician following autonomous quadcopter

DARPA's FLA program is aimed at creating a demonstrator UAV system that is small enough to be put through a building window by hand, yet can autonomously negotiate the interior at up to 45 mph without help from an operator or GPS waypoints. The agency says the key to this is a new a new class of algorithms that use less processing power and reliance on a human operator, yet can handle rooms, stairs, corridors, and obstacles.

The idea behind the program is that it will not only allow the UAVs to operate in cluttered environments with poor navigation signals, but will also free up the operator to concentrate on higher level tasks while the drone worries about the driving. In this way, there would be less operator fatigue and one person could monitor several drones at one.

The test flights, which did result in a few crashes, were made at a disused air hangar at Otis Air National Guard Base, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, which had been converted into a maze using boxes and simulated walls. Here, three research teams used a commercial DJI Flamewheel 450 airframe equipped with E600 motors, 12-in propellers, and a 3DR Pixhawk autopilot. In addition, it carried a full load of high-definition onboard cameras, LIDAR, sonar, inertial measurement units, and other sensors.

The quadcopter flew the course autonomously
The quadcopter flew the course autonomously

For the first tests, the team flew the UAV at both high and low speeds with the operator acting only as an observer. DARPA says now that the initial data collection phase is complete, the obstacle course will be made more complicated and realistic. The hope is that the algorithms may one day be adapted not only to UAVs, but to ground and marine vehicles in GPS-degraded or denied environments.

"We're excited that we were able to validate the airspeed goal during this first-flight data collection," says Micire. "The fact that some teams also demonstrated basic autonomous flight ahead of schedule was an added bonus. The challenge for the teams now is to advance the algorithms and onboard computational efficiency to extend the UAVs' perception range and compensate for the vehicle's' mass to make extremely tight turns and abrupt maneuvers at high speeds."

The video below shows the quadcopter blasting through the course.

Source: DARPA

Fully Loaded Quadcopter Achieves 20 m/s Flight

4 comments
mhpr262
Autonomous flight at 45 mph is apparently a lot easier to achieve when you don't have to do any steering ...
jeffbloggs
Despite what it seems to claim this 20m/s DARPA flight was actually flown by a human and was not autonomous at all. It even it says it in the video as "teleoperated" ie remote controlled by a person. This is no better than any other FPV quad racing on youtube. The autonomous bit was the stuff was only at 1m/s in the video. I don't understand why DARPA released such a conflicting story.
Adrien
That should be 72km/h not 32.
Adrien
the higher speed run is only a single straight line, no navigation at all. the obstacle negotiation part of the video was very unimpressive (slow) and looked badly manually controlled. So... where's the video of it negotiating obstacles and going round corners at 20m/s?