Aurora Flight Sciences plans in 18 months to fly a micro-sized unmanned air vehicle that is guided by visual and sonar sensors inspired by flies and bats.
The challenge involves not just cramming several tiny cameras, two sonar antennas and on-board processing into a prototype package weighing no more than 300g (10.6oz) and consuming less than 5W.
Aurora's project team, aided by algorithms developed by the University of Maryland, must also design a guidance system that would allow a micro-UAV to autonomously navigate a dense urban canyon.
Jim Paduano, Aurora's lead researcher, acknowledges that the difficulty dramatically increases the closer the UAV flies to ground level. Above about 16.4ft (5m), the only things to detect and dodge are mostly large buildings. Below about 13-16ft, the UAV must fly amid an urban gauntlet of power lines, traffic poles, cables and other city obstacles. The integrated guidance system is called Panoptis.
Aurora began the project about two years ago with a phase 1 award from the US Air Force Research Laboratory. The company received a phase 2 contract in August, with a flight test planned in spring 2010.
The ARA Night Hawk micro-UAV will be used for the flight tests, but Paduano confirms that Aurora is developing its own micro-UAV with the right manoeuvrability characteristics to take full advantage of the guidance system.
Aurora is working with the University of Maryland to design the package of six optic flow sensors spread around the vehicle for visual detection of obstacles. A pair of MaxBotix acoustic sensors detects even smaller obstacles, such as wires, by localising their location by sending acoustic pings from two, wingtip-mounted sensors.
The prototype system must eventually shrink to 90-150g for a production system, Paduano says, adding that the power requirement also should fall to 1.5-2W.
Another key missing part is a satellite-based navigation system, he says, which would allow the micro-UAV to know its location in space as it moves from point to point.