Drones Reporting for Work at 45 MPH

Draper’s SAMWISE sensor-fusion algorithm enables drones to fly 45 mph in unmapped, GPS-denied environments.

“What makes the Draper and MIT team’s approach so valuable is finding the sweet spot of a small size, weight and power for an air vehicle with limited onboard computing power to perform a complex mission completely autonomously.”

When a firefighter, first responder or soldier operates a small, lightweight flight vehicle inside a building, in urban canyons, underground or under the forest canopy, the GPS-denied environment presents unique navigation challenges. In many cases loss of GPS signals can cause these vehicles to become inoperable and, in the worst case, unstable, potentially putting operators, bystanders and property in danger.

Attempts have been made to close this information gap and give UAVs alternative ways to navigate their environments without GPS. But those attempts have resulted in further information gaps, especially on UAVs whose speeds can outpace the capabilities of their onboard technologies. For instance, scanning LiDAR routinely fails to achieve its location-matching with accuracy when the UAV is flying through environments that lack buildings, trees and other orienting structures.

To address these drawbacks, a team from Draper and MIT has developed advanced vision-aided navigation techniques for UAVs that do not rely on external infrastructure, such as GPS, detailed maps of the environment or motion capture systems. Working together under a contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Draper and MIT created a UAV that can autonomously sense and maneuver through unknown environments without external communications or GPS under the Fast Lightweight Autonomy (FLA) program. The team developed and implemented unique sensor and algorithm configurations, and has conducted time-trials and performance evaluations in indoor and outdoor venues.

“The biggest challenge with unmanned aerial vehicles is balancing power, flight time and capability due to the weight of the technology required to power the UAVs,” said Robert Truax, Senior Member of Technical Staff at Draper. “What makes the Draper and MIT team’s approach so valuable is finding the sweet…

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