In today’s world, autonomous vehicles have practically become the norm, depending on where you live. From cars and big rigs to even entire buildings, seeing things operate autonomously without any external aid is no longer considered science fiction. However, when it comes to other advanced technologies, like drones, there is still a heavy reliance on both human aid and GPS – neither of which are entirely reliable.
That is why when teams of DARPA researchers competed to create a new quadcopter drone, their results were quite revolutionary – a drone that is able to navigate through complex terrain, locate its target, and return home without any help by humans or GPS! Each team used different sensors for each drone and tested them in both heavily wooded areas and indoors, none of which its obstacles were given to the drones beforehand. All that was given were details of the target in need of locating and the proximity between home base and the target.
Despite some hiccups, the drones were able to navigate through unknown terrain and find its target with relative ease, only to then return home thereafter. This was merely Phase 1 of DARPA’s Fast Lightweight Autonomy (FLA) program. Phase 2 will allow each team to begin perfecting their drone in accordance to what they learned during Phase 1. So far, however, DARPA has already revolutionized the drone.
Five to ten years from now, the findings from this research will potentially make a huge impact on how drones are used throughout society, and not just for military purposes. As drones begin being used for delivery services, whether it be online retail or medicine, having them navigate without the strict reliance on either humans or GPS would certainly ease any tension between the FAA and companies wishing to use drones for delivery purposes. Not to mention will help increase the efficiency of drones as they’ll most certainly come across various different paths and obstacles that weren’t originally taken into account.
“FLA is not aimed at developing new sensor technology or to solve the autonomous navigation and obstacle avoidance challenges by adding more and more computing power. The key elements in this effort, which make it challenging, are the requirements to use inexpensive inertial measurement units and off-the-shelf quadcopters with limited weight capacity. This puts the program emphasis on creating novel algorithms that work at high speed in real time with relatively low-power, small single board computers similar to a smart phone.”
– JC Ledé, DARPA FLA program manager
Thirty to fifty years from now, drones will be operating for multiple different services throughout the world. Each drone will operate autonomously with ease, even when transporting full-sized humans across busy cityscapes. Companies today are already aiming to create self-flying vehicles that rely on advanced drone technology. By this time, these types of transport vehicles will be flying in our skies more often than actual planes.
Photo Credit: DARPA.mil