Pentagon wants fast, bird-like UAS for urban missions

A DARPA program is looking to develop smaller drones, functioning like birds or even insects, that could operate in tight spaces.

Typically, UAVs must be operated by a human who is a trained pilot. By developing fully autonomous, insect-sized UAVs, small squads will be able to gain reconnaissance without such restrictions.

DARPA FLA small fast UAS

Lightweight, agile unmanned vehicles can be invaluable to troops in the field, providing surveillance footage of potentially dangerous areas, but they do have some limitations. For one, they can provide an overview of an area from the air, but they can’t see inside a building or closed space. For another, they must be controlled by an operator who otherwise could be focusing on other tasks.

The Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency wants to get around those hurdles with a new class of smaller and faster autonomous vehicles. The agency recently issued a solicitation under its Fast Lightweight Autonomy program, which aims to create small autonomous vehicles that can navigate in tighter spaces such as stair wells or inside buildings to alert humans of unforeseen surprises.

DARPA envisions such autonomous aircraft to be capable of flying through doors or windows at speeds of up to 45 miles per hour while resembling the size and maneuverability of small birds or insects to avoid collisions. These smaller devices would greatly assist soldiers in field reconnaissance when larger UAVs might be unavailable or inapplicable. In addition to military applications, smaller, insect-size devices can allow for greater safety in search and rescue operations, enabling them to navigate difficult terrains or environments without risking the lives of humans. 

The idea of small, self-directing unmanned vehicles has been a gola of the military for some time. The Army Research Lab, for one, has previously looked into similar technology to serve in squad-level reconnaissance. However, challenges such as computing, piloting and stability remains a concern, especially given the small size of these systems.   

One method in which a truly autonomous device might function at high speeds while avoiding collisions is by using a chip that allows devices to learn from their surroundings. DARPA is funding a program to develop a brain-like chip that can be placed on a device weighing as little as three ounces. The chip functions much like the human brain by allowing the insect-sized aircraft to recognize and process new and familiar surroundings on its own. 

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