Military turns to home hobbyists for drone's future
October 13th, 2011
06:00 AM ET

Military turns to home hobbyists for drone's future

By CNN National Security Producer Jennifer Rizzo

The military's research branch is turning to the public for the next "big idea" on small drones.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA, is hosting a competition called UAVForge, in which the public is invited to submit designs for small unmanned air vehicles.

An estimated 10,000 amateur drone hobbyists are in the United States, according to Wired Magazine's editor-in-chief and DIY Drones co-founder, Chris Anderson.

DARPA's tapping into that market, saying it is calling "on innovators of every kind; scientists, engineers, citizen scientists and dreamers," according to its website.

Designs can be submitted starting October 19 and at a minimum should be backpack-portable, able to fly quietly in and out of "critical environments," and capable of conducting sustained surveillance for up to three hours, the agency says.

Extra credit will be given to advanced capabilities, such as ones that allow the drone to avoid obstacles, or operate in a loss-of-communication situation.

Ninety-six teams have registered for the competition so far, including a few dozen international teams, according to DARPA spokesman Eric Mazzacone.

Videos of already-made models and design renderings have been posted on the UAVForge site. DARPA says these "idea videos" are an opportunity for individuals and teams to share information and new ideas before formal concept submission begins next week.

One video depicts a drone built to resemble a bird of prey, a falcon, with a moveable camera in place of the bird's head. Another resembles a pogo stick. Other four-winged drones, known as quadrocopters, maneuver through various tight spaces like windows and plastic hoops.

However, most of the videos posted represent current technologies that do not have the "perch and stare" capabilities DARPA is looking for, according to the agency.

Nonetheless, Mazzacone said that "the level of participation to date has exceeded our expectations."

The agency said it set up the competition to encourage innovation.

"We're looking at an alternative way to tap into innovative approaches from around the world," said UAVForge program manager Jim McCormick. "We seek to lower the threshold to entry for hobbyists and citizen scientists, hoping to yield greater innovation, shorter timelines, better performance and more affordable solutions."

DARPA currently has a program dedicated to a "rucksack" portable drone but, according to McCormick, before the military can use the technology there is a hurdle in "cost and complexity of use."

McCormick is hopeful these two issues will be addressed by the "crowd sourcing" competition, but admits DARPA is operating on new ground.

"This isn't a sure thing," McCormick said. "We're trying something new, and it has a lot of promise."

Team submissions will go through a series of reviews in which peers will be able to give feedback and vote on the designs online. The top 10 teams will advance to a fly-off competition set to take place at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina early next year, where DARPA says it will test the drones in "a simulated high-stress surveillance mission".

The team that comes up with the winning design will receive a $100,000 award and be able to showcase the design in an overseas military exercise, according to the agency. The team also will work with a manufacturer selected by the government to produce up to 15 systems for future experimentation.

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Filed under: DARPA • drones • Military
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