Bird size UAS by 2015, now where have we seen that before?

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is working to design and build unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs) as small as a bird, or even a large insect, according to Mikel Miller, chief scientist for the Munitions Directorate AFRL at Eglin Air Force Base.

“There’s an insatiable desire for UA systems right now,” Miller said during a presentation at the Institute of Navigation’s 2011 International Technical Meeting, being held this week in San Diego. Miller was one of four speakers at the Robotics Navigation Plenary Session held Monday.

According to an AFRL vision document, in the period from now until 2034, unmanned systems are expected to be used not only for reconnaissance and surveillance, but as a way to take warfighters out of harm’s way.

“Unmanned aircraft systems have emerged as one of the most in-demand capabilities the USA provides to the joint force,” Miller said. In 2004, there were on average five combat air patrols a day to gather mission intelligence, without the use of autonomous vehicles. The year 2009 saw an increase to 38 patrols per day.

By 2015, the AFRL hopes to demonstrate a bird-sized UAV platform that can sense weapons of mass destruction and is capable of semi-autonomous operation for up to a week. The goal by 2030 is an insect-sized unit. These tiny UAVs would be used in urban environments, able to fly inside and navigate unfamiliar buildings when needed.

Miller said he envisions a bird-sized UAV that would ideally even look like a bird. Research for these small UAVs is focusing, among many challenges, on how to keep the vehicle from being damaged by strong gusts of wind that can funnel between high-rises without warning. A sudden gust could slam the small unit against a wall, destroying it.

In a typical mission, the bird UAV would know its position when released, fly down urban canyons (probably not using GPS navigation), transition to hover, reconnoiter, transition back to forward flight, avoid obstacles, and go inside buildings.

The other three speakers at the plenary session focused on Simultaneous Location and Mapping (SLAM) navigation and commercial robotics developments. In his talk “The Dawn of Personal Robotics,” Steve Cousins, president and CEO of Willow Garage, shared his vision for personal robotics. His company has loaned 11 of its model PR2 robots to various universities and given them access to its open-source software to explore ways expand the field of robotics. He shared videos of the PR2 playing music, folding towels, and playing pool.

“There’s a long list of technical challenges, of which navigation is only one,” he said.

Also speaking were Salah Sukkarieh, research director, Australian Center for Field Robotics, University of Sydney, on “Autonomous Perception and Decision Making: The Quest in Field Robotics,” and Mario Munich, vice president of R&D, Evolution Robotics, who discussed “Cost-Effective SLAM for Consumer Robotics.”