DARPA FLA program for autonomous drones flight tests begin

DARPA has announced that it has begun flight testing in its latest drone program called Fast Lightweight Autonomy (FLA) and the initial round of tests was a success. The goal of FLA is to create small autonomous aircraft with sensors that allow the drones to avoid obstacles while achieving a desired speed of 20 meters per seconds. The main goal of the program is to develop and test algorithms that reduce the processing power, communications and human intervention needed for UAVs to perform certain low-level tasks.

Those tasks include things like navigating around obstacles in a cluttered environment. The goal of the FLA program is to reduce the workload for an operator and allow the operator to focus on higher-level supervision of formations of manned and unmanned platforms as part of a single system. That makes it sound like DARPA wants to eventually use the techniques it learns via FLA on larger UAVs that can operate alongside human pilots.

The FLA program would be especially useful for troops patrolling dense urban environments and rescue teams who are responding to disasters. FLA could enable drone aircraft to navigate crowded and unknown spaces to give troops or rescuers a look inside the walls of an unknown and possibly hostile space at speeds up to 45mph. The algorithms in development would allow navigation without outside operators, sensors and without needing GPS.

The test platform in use by DARPA now is a DJI Flamewheel 450 airframe, E600 motors with 12-inch propellers, and 3DR Pixhawk autopilot. This platform can achieve the needed 20 meters per second, or 45mph and carry HD cameras and other sensors. Those other sensors include things like LIDAR, sonar, and inertial measurement units. The next step of the program is to develop algorithms that allow the drone to make extremely tight turns and abrupt maneuvers at high speeds.