by Kiet Do

PALO ALTO (KPIX) — For the past nine years, some of the country’s brightest scientific minds have been focused on a bold and broad research program, led by the Army Research Lab (ARL), to create to the next generation of drones. Not just any drones, but autonomous machines that, one day, can think for themselves, even communicate with each other and work together to carry out complex missions.

The program, called Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology Collaborative Technology Alliance (MAST CTA), is coming to an end. More than a dozen universities and technology companies researched different aspects of the drones, from sensors to artificial intelligence to bio-inspired mechanics.

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The ARL puts it this way:

“Enhance tactical situational awareness in urban and complex terrain by enabling the autonomous operation of a collaborative ensemble of multifunctional, mobile microsystems.”

In other words, equip soldiers with small, tough drones that can go anywhere, in any condition, that can be their eyes and ears on the battlefield.

“What we’re trying to really do is save soldiers lives,” said Brett Piekarski, branch chief at the Army Research Lab.

“So if he’s entering into an environment where they may be a threat around a corner, on top of a building or inside a building, that he can deploy some kind of type of sensor to provide him information about that,” said Piekarski.

We followed along with Piekarski on a tour of Stanford University’s Mechanical Engineering Research Lab, as the researchers shared their breakthroughs.

The military’s current drone fleet operates much as you’d expect, piloted by an human operator, powered by gas or battery and resembling an airplane or quadcopter. These traditional designs consume large amounts of energy or fuel and don’t allow the machine to “loiter” in a combat zone.

Mechanical engineering professor Mark Cutkosky sought to change that with the Stanford Climbing and Aerial Maneuvering Platform, or SCAMP.

Scamp the Wall-Climbing Drone

SCAMP is a wall-climbing drone being developed at Stanford. (CBS)

SCAMP, a thin, lightweight drone that weighs no more than a few ounces, flies until it hits a wall. The quadrotors then propel the drone into a vertical position, where “feet” with tiny hooks latch onto the wall. Servos gently lift the spring-loaded legs off the wall, and reattach them, in a climbing motion. The researchers say they were inspired by beetles.

“If you can land, shut down the rotors, you can stay there for hours doing surveillance or inspection or monitoring air quality, whatever you want. And when you’re done it takes off and flies home,” says Cutkosky.

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It was Piekarski’s first time seeing SCAMP land and climb on a wall for himself.

“It’s good to see innovation coming to life,” he said.

Directly across the hall, Professor David Lentink and his team of researchers provide a tour of an unusual research tool, a wind tunnel for birds.

Lentink, who has been researching bird flight for years, is currently focused on how they react to turbulence. It has practical applications, since today’s quadcopters have difficulty maintaining stability, even in light and steady winds.

To see exactly how a bird’s wing adapts in flight, researcher Marc Deetjen helped create a system that projects a grid onto the bird’s wing, then uses a high speed camera to create 3D surface renderings.

Deetjen wrote the code to generate the high-resolution renderings in realtime. The process, which used to be performed manually, taking hours or even days, now takes seconds.

Lentink envisions a day when drones easily fly in between buildings in a downtown area, where the tall structures create swirling, unpredictable wind patterns.

“We can now look at how birds actually respond to turbulence and actually measure how they change their wing shape. And that is really a window towards new opportunities, because once we understand how birds respond, we can use that principle to make even simple quadcopter better,” Lentink says.

In less than a decade, the Army’s $68 million dollar program has produced some promising designs, like the Spydar from the University of Delaware, that lowers itself from a hole in the ceiling down onto the ground using a spool of string, then crawls around.

UC Berkeley has also been making big strides with its VelociRoach, a fast multi-legged robot that scampers along at 11 miles an hour. Footage shows two VelociRoaches working in tandem to climb over a step, where one acts as a ladder for the other. Then once on top, it deploys a tow line to pull the other one up to join it.

Piekarski stresses that the goal of MAST was not to deliver a finished product, but rather to lay the groundwork for future scientists to better focus their research efforts.

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“I think it’ll happen in my lifetime, yes,” Piekarski says, “We are demonstrating the art of the possible.”