Micro-Drones: The New Face Of Cutting-Edge Warfare
by Will Ferguson and David Hambling
23 July 2012
Drones are getting smaller and smarter, able to navigate and identify targets without GPS or human operators
FAR from the aeroplane-sized craft that are the face of cutting-edge warfare, a much smaller revolution in drones is under way.
Micro-aerial vehicles (MAVs) with uncanny navigation and real-time mapping capabilities could soon be zipping through indoor and outdoor spaces, running reconnaissance missions that others cannot. They would allow soldiers to look over hills, inside buildings and inspect suspicious objects without risk.
Unlike their larger cousins, whose complex navigation systems let them fly autonomously for hours or even days (see “Aloft for longer than ever”), MAVs are not known for their smarts. They typically rely on a GPS signal to tell them where they are, and on human operators for nearly everything else, such as where to go, what to look for and where to land.
Now researchers led by Roland Brockers at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, have developed a MAV that uses a camera pointed at the ground to navigate and pick landing spots. It can even identify people and other objects. The system enables the drone to travel through terrain where human control and GPS are unavailable, such as a city street or inside a building.
A human operator needs to tell the drone only two things before it sets off: where it is and where its objective is. The craft figures out the rest for itself, using the camera and onboard software to build a 3D map of its surroundings. It can also avoid obstacles and detect surfaces above a predetermined height as possible landing zones. Once it selects a place to put down, it maps the site’s dimensions, moves overhead and lands.