UAS & Robotics

Army lab developing small drone with insect-like vision

ARL drones insect vision

Soldiers have worked together with robots—whether in the form of, say, bomb-hunting ground vehicles or video-streaming air vehicles—for years. But it’s a labor-intensive process for the soldier operating the vehicle via a controller or monitor.

The Army Research Laboratory is trying to change that equation, with a palm-sized, prototype UAV that, using insect-inspired visual sensing, is designed to navigate a 3D space such as a building on its own while relaying tactical awareness back to a soldier.

The quad-copter drone, the result of an ARL collaboration with academia and industry, is expected to be tested at the manned and unmanned teaming, or MUM-T, exercise at the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Ga., according to an ARL release. Researchers say they aren’t expecting miracles—this UAV represents a technological leap—but are hoping to put the UAV to use with soldiers and gather feedback on improving g autonomous systems.

The prototype is capable of wide-field vision and high update rate—both present in insect vision—and researchers hope to combine those features with 3D mapping and motion estimation to allow it to operate autonomously. Whether it works as intended or not, researchers expect to learn a lot from the tests.

"It is exciting,” Brendan Byrne, who manages the platform from the perspective of Computational and Information Sciences, said in the release. “On one hand, the technology offers the most cutting edge possibilities. On the other hand, the lack of maturity makes it the most prone to failure."

The small UAV is the work of the Micro-Autonomous Systems Technology Collaborative Technology Alliance, or MAST CTA, part of ARL’s robotics enterprise. The alliance includes Carnegie Mellon University, the primary collaborator on the project, along with BAE Systems (which actually leads the alliance), NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the University of Maryland, the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania and 13 other universities.

"The upcoming tests are a small example of a much larger effort," said Brett Piekarski, Collaborative Alliance Manager. "The university researchers across the consortium work with the Army researchers to come up with systems that can provide Soldier/robot teaming and be transitioned to industry."

Unmanned vehicles are nothing new in the military, of course, but the Pentagon has put an emphasis on greater autonomy, as well as the ability of unmanned vehicle to work together in swarms. Researchers also are working to develop small autonomous drones that can provide short-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for small units or even individual soldiers.

It might not be easy, but the MAST CTA members have made progress in this type of technology—both individually and collectively—and ARL is hoping to take it further.

"We take a crack at unsolved problems," Byrne said. "The technology may not completely work, but it directs where our attention should be focused."

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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