Thursday, August 12, 2010

DOD invests in tomorrow's UAV and sensor features

By Amber Corrin

Dozens of universities are on the receiving end of $227 million over five years in research funding from the Defense Department and will use the money to bankroll exploration of high-tech capabilities, including for sensors and unmanned aerial vehicles.

The Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) is responsible for the funding, which is the result of a highly competitive contest held by the Army Research Office, the Office of Naval Research and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Based on the proposals selected in the fiscal 2010 competition, a total of 67 academic institutions are expected to participate in the 32 research efforts, according to a DOD release.

One of the projects, called “Provably Stable Vision-Based Control of High-Speed Flight through Forests and Urban Environments,” will conduct research in advanced UAV sensing and control. The project is for small UAVs that will be modeled after birds, said Russ Tedrake, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the lead institution for the UAV flight project.

“Everything changes when you’re suddenly the size of a bird and flying through an open environment," Tedrake said. "Your perception changes and wind matters a lot, so you have to determine how to control flight.”

"We need to understand the capabilities to train the computers and vision systems," he added.

To do so, part of his team’s research will involve using real birds with cameras attached to track their flight and get an idea of real trajectories as the birds fly through synthetic forests and urban environments, Tedrake said.

Onboard cameras and sensors would measure aspects of the environment such as wind flow, a key element of developing advanced UAVs that can be as small as a bird. “A wind gust that would be a minor nuisance to a fighter jet could be comparable to the flight speed of a bird or small UAV,” Tedrake said.

Eventually, the research could be used to develop small UAVs that have onboard processing and decision-making capabilities. For something that small in environments such as forests or cities, “even a line-of-sight link would be too slow,” he said.

The DOD funding is a catalyst for research that breaks away from what’s currently being done. “There are two faces to the UAV word: the conventional tried-and-true aircraft control technology and the next-generation UAVs in the research world. And we’re just beginning to dream up new UAV capabilities,” Tedrake said, adding that research will get under way this fall.

The funding also will go toward other sensor-based projects that could be the future of military technology, including one led by the University of Washington called “Remote Sensing and Data-Assimilative Modeling in the Littorals,” which will explore advanced sensing technologies for naval vessels.

A full listing of the MURI projects and the universities working on them can be found here.

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