DARPA, otherwise known as the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, recently showcased a few test flights featuring its latest project — an autonomous drone that can travel indoors at blisteringly fast speeds without the need for a human pilot.
In a recent video, the drone is shown flying indoors at speeds of up to 45mph without crashing into obstacles — a milestone achievement and probably the world’s fastest autonomous indoor flight for a multirotor to date.
At the heart of the DARPA drone is a heavily customized Pixhawk flight controller with algorithms that allow the drone to navigate around obstacles and avoid crashing into them. Everything is held together by a DJI Flamewheel 450 open airframe and propulsion is handled by E600 motors paired to 12-inch propellers.
The drone was developed as part of the Fast Lightweight Autonomy (FLA) programme in which the agency hopes to develop autonomous drones that can be used to carry out tasks such as surveillance of disaster situations and military reconnaissance.
Also involved are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of Pennsylvania, Scientific Systems Company (SSCI) and AeroVironment which helped develop the sophisticated autopilot algorithms.
Despite the recent progress, the drones are still incapable of performing complex tasks on their own without assistance from human operators and GPS signals. DARPA hopes to improve on the smart capabilities of its drones so that they would eventually be highly autonomous and be able to carry out tasks in highly challenging situations without relying on external help.
According to Mark Micire — DARPA program manager (as reported by International Business times),
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.
The challenge facing DARPA now is to develop fully autonomous drones that cram as much computing power as possible into a compact and lightweight overall package that can be easily deployed in various missions.
Drones with massive computing power exist today but they are often huge, complicated and heavy so squeezing all that computing power into a small and light package is not going to be straightforward.
Eventually, that agency hopes that its customized autopilot software could be used by various autonomous vehicles on the ground and in marine environments where GPS assistance is not available.