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Watch DARPA’s new turbo mini-drone fly 45 mph in warehouse testing

DARPA's incredibly fast mini-drone zooms around a warehouse at 20 meters per second, demonstrating its autonomous flight capabilities. (Video: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency)

What weighs just a couple of pounds, zooms through indoor environments at 45 mph and could someday help U.S. combat troops fight in urban environments? The turbo mini-drones under research by the military agency devoted to investigating disruptive technologies.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently tested quad-copters loaded with sensors and cameras at an old hangar set up as a warehouse at Otis Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts, the agency announced Friday. The effort marked a first flight test for DARPA’s Fast Lightweight Autonomy program, which is probing how to develop algorithms that could reduce the amount of human intervention needed to fly small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) through a congested urban environment.

The technology could be especially useful in addressing what the military sees as a shortfall. While small drones are now commercially available, it is difficult to navigate them through buildings, wreckage and other potentially dangerous environments without entering. Better drones might allow them to find survivors after a bombing, look for booby traps or test the air quality before entering dangerous areas.

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As part of the testing, DARPA got the drones up to 20 meters per second, or about 45 mph. It also operated them without “teleoperation” — meaning the use of remote controls. The agency said it used a DJI Flame Wheel 450 airframe — a common commercially available drone — with 12-inch propellers and loaded it with not only cameras, but sonar and lidar sensors that use sound and light respectively to determine the location of surrounding objects.

“We’re excited that we were able to validate the airspeed goal during this first-flight data collection,” said Mark Micire, DARPA program manager. “The fact that some teams also demonstrated basic autonomous flight ahead of schedule was an added bonus. 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.”

Three groups were involved: one from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston teamed with the nonprofit engineer laboratory Draper in Reston, Va.; one from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and one from the technology firms Scientific Systems Inc. in Woburn, Mass., and AeroVironment outside Los Angeles. DARPA did not say which team performed the best, but released a video that showed both drones successfully negotiating tight quarters and crashing into walls.

“But the only way to achieve hard goals is to push physical systems and software to the limit,” Micire said. “I expect there will be more flight failures and smashed quadcopters along the way.”

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