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DARPA Test-Flies Autonomous Small Quadcopters

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency put unmanned quadcopters through a series of tests to demonstrate autonomous flight without the aid of human operators or global positioning systems.

DARPA said Wednesday three research teams under the Fast Lightweight Autonomy program flew small unmanned quadcopters through various environments using onboard cameras and sensors as well as smart algorithms for autonomous navigation.

“The goal of FLA is to develop advanced algorithms to allow unmanned air or ground vehicles to operate without the guidance of a human tele-operator, GPS, or any datalinks going to or coming from the vehicle,” said JC Lede, DARPA FLA program manager.

The technology is intended to support unmanned aerial vehicle flights in GPS-denied or GPS-unavailable environments and aid military operations or search and rescue missions, among others, DARPA said.

During the tests, researchers provided targets or objectives for the UAVs by uploading images or estimated direction and distance.

The quadcopters had to self-navigate through various obstacle-strewn locations such as building interiors, wooded areas and a hangar before flying back to the starting point.

At least one team managed to complete an autonomous flight and see their vehicle return to the starting point during each day’s obstacle-course runs, DARPA noted.

“We’ve still got quite a bit of work to do to enable full autonomy for the wide-ranging scenarios we tested, but I think the algorithms we’re developing could soon be used to augment existing GPS-dependent UAVs for some applications,” Lede noted.

He added that current UAVs could use GPS until it enters a building, then switch to FLA algorithms while indoors.

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