Whether it’s dropping off packages, gathering intelligence, or simply attacking the enemy, lightweight drones offer a number of possibilities for military use, and it’s no surprise that the Pentagon has been exploring the technology.
Established in 2014, the Fast Lightweight Autonomy (FLA) program is bearing fruit: it recently showed off a self-flying drone that can speed through a warehouse at 45 miles per hour and dodge obstacles along the way.
The drone was a DJI Flamewheel modified with extra motors and the 3DR Pixhawk autopilot. The taped flight demonstrated that the autopilot could “see” obstacles and slow down to get around them without the aid of a human controller.
It sped through an old warehouse that had boxes and simulated walls to serve as an obstacle course to test the drone’s agility and speed.
Also attached to the drone was a sonar, inertia measurement units, and LIDAR technology—a laser device used to create a 3D map of the surroundings that’s also used by Google for its self-driving cars.
“The challenge for the teams now is to advance the algorithms and onboard computational efficiency to extend the UAVs’ perception range and compensate for the vehicles’ mass to make extremely tight turns and abrupt maneuvers at high speeds,” Mark Micire, DARPA program manager, said in a statement.
The drone also crashed a few times, but that’s to be expected, Micire said, when you’re pushing a technology to its limits.
What makes the the FLA’s self-flying drone isn’t that it’s the smallest or fastest drone, or a flying vehicle with the largest number of capabilities, but that it’s the right balance of size, speed, and functionality for niche activities like aiding soldiers in urban warfare, flying through windows and dilapidated buildings.
“What makes the FLA program so challenging is finding the sweet-spot of a small size, weight and power air vehicle with limited onboard computing power to perform a complex mission completely autonomously,” Micire said.