The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has launched a new programme to develop a new class of algorithms that would help small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to quickly navigate rooms, stairways or other obstacle-filled environments without teleoperation.
The fast lightweight autonomy (FLA) programme seeks development of autonomous UAVs that can fit through an open window and fly at speeds up to 45mph, while navigating within complex indoor spaces without communication with outside operators or sensors. and reliance on GPS waypoints.
DARPA programme manager Mark Micire said: "Birds of prey and flying insects exhibit the kinds of capabilities we want for small UAVs.
"The goal of the FLA programme is to explore non-traditional perception and autonomy methods that would give small UAVs the capacity to perform in a similar way.
"This includes an ability to easily navigate tight spaces at a high speed and quickly recognise if it had already been in a room before."
If successfully developed, the FLA algorithms could boost unmanned system capabilities by reducing the amount of processing power, communications, and human intervention required for low-level tasks, such as navigation around obstacles in a cluttered environment.
While the initial focus is on UAVs, the advances made through the FLA programme could potentially be applied to ground, marine and underwater systems.
DARPA Defense Sciences Office director Stefanie Tompkins said: "Urban and disaster relief operations would be obvious key beneficiaries.
"However, applications for this technology could extend to a wide variety of missions using small and large unmanned systems linked together with manned platforms as a system of systems.
"By enabling unmanned systems to learn 'muscle memory' and perception for basic tasks like avoiding obstacles, it would relieve overload and stress on human operators so they can focus on supervising the systems and executing the larger mission."
As the programme does not need development of a new UAV design, DARPA will provide selected performers with the same small UAV testbed as government-furnished equipment.
The agency is set to hold a webcast proposers day in January 2015.
Image: An artistic impression of a small UAV that can quickly navigate rooms, stairways or other obstacle-filled environments without teleoperation. Photo: courtesy of DARPA.