The Government Wants To Teach Drones Some New Tricks


Recent Army contracts focus on the skies while DARPA is focused on underground efforts.

I know that sometimes I tend to drone on about flying robots and other unmanned aerial vehicles, but as the technology continues to advance, I firmly believe that it will secure more and more roles in both government and the private sector. And yet, the technology is still extremely young and constantly upgrading, so much so that the drones of today might not even be recognized as kin by the intelligent flying robots of tomorrow.

Some of those advancements may come from the Army’s Short Range Reconnaissance program, which just awarded six traction agreements to companies for the purpose of making aerial drones a little bit smarter. Those companies will develop technologies that will help Army drones sense and automatically avoid hazards during both daytime and night missions. The idea is to eventually be able to give soldiers command of a small drone the Army wants to fit inside a rucksack. Once given a mission, the drone should be able to carry out its orders more or less automatically. Specifically, drones in the program will most likely be used to provide for “eye in the sky” type situational awareness in any condition.

“Engaging with industry in a more collaborative environment allows the Army to design, develop and deliver the latest technologies to benefit the soldier today as well as better inform how to address identified capability gaps tomorrow,” Assistant Product Manager for the Program Executive Office for Aviation Carson Wakefield recently told the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service.

While the Army tries to make its flying drones a bit more intelligent, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is leaving the sky all together and putting its robots to the test underground. The agency has begun the SubT Integration Exercise at the Edgar Experimental Mine in Colorado. SubT will attempt to develop drones that can navigate independently in tunnels, caves and other underground areas and structures.

In a lot of ways, the SubT Exercise is a lot more demanding on intelligent robots than the Army program. Whereas a flying robot has to watch out for things like other drones or the occasional tree branch, those involved in the SubT Exercise will be navigating a complex, previously unknown tunnel system where the walls might only be a few inches away from the vehicle.

DARPA explains that intelligent robots operating underground could benefit both warfighters and civilian rescue teams. For soldiers, it might mean being able to explore underground complexes or bunkers without exposing humans to potential hazards like chemicals in the air or traps laid by the enemy. On the civilian side, technology developed by the SubT program might have even greater benefits, with rescuers able to quickly locate those trapped in caves or even collapsed structures. DARPA explains the challenge and the potential benefits in one of their invitation videos to potential participants.

It will be interesting to see whether flying, wheeled or tracked drones perform better in the SubT exercise. One would think that flying robots would have more mobility in caves and underground structures, and of course the ability to move vertically up or down chimneys and shafts, or even through something like an air duct system. However, robots on the ground are probably going to be a bit more sturdy. Hitting or brushing up against a wall is probably no big deal for a tracked or wheeled robot, whereas the same activity could easily crack a rotor or destroy the flight characteristics of a hovering drone.

The DARPA exercise should certainly lead to advancements, but some of the technology required to even qualify for SubT is already very impressive. One company, CSIRO, posted a video of what its tracked robot did to get accepted into the program.

The CSIRO robot was able to drive through a warehouse-like building while mapping the environment. It also was able to identify and classify objects it found along the way using Lidar, LEDs and an HDR camera, all of which enabled it to work in full darkness. At one point, it discovered a person hiding in a dark room. In another instance, it discovered a very small connecting passage linking two areas. And while the robot was able to perform all of those tasks autonomously, those receiving its reports could also send it updated mission data based on what it was discovering.

Everything that both the Army is doing in the skies and DARPA is testing underground makes my little personal drone seem a bit primitive by comparison. However, almost all of the drones operating these days are of the dumber variety, requiring a pilot to be constantly watching them, either directly using line of sight or through a remote camera. But just because the drones aren’t thinking for themselves does not mean that they can’t get into serious trouble. In recent months, drones have been spotted flying over sporting events like a Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park, and even around airports. While those activities are illegal, in most cases the police are not able to track the owners of the drones.

Members of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, Senators Edward Markey, D-Mass., and John Thune, R-S.D., want to change that. They have petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration in a letter this week to begin work on a rule that would allow officials to track drones. The effort ultimately could lead to mandatory registering of drones, much like with actual passenger aircraft.

While I am all for requiring the safe use of drones, I’m not sure it would be possible to have them officially and individually registered, especially as the market gets flooded with cheaper, tiny drones. A quick search on Amazon found hundreds of different models, with prices as low as $15. And one night I saw a home shopping channel sell over 1,000 units. Given those numbers, I don’t think the FAA could keep up registering them all, much less include the millions of drones already out there in the world. But even so, I think the senators are on the right track. Drones are certainly going to be a big part of the future, and that means we will probably see many more uses of them very soon, for both good and ill purposes.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys