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An unbiased, nonprofit engineering innovation company.
Draper designs or selects and integrates technology best suited to your system requirements and mission needs. Your problem is our priority.
When technology overmatch matters, Draper delivers. Countering the varied threats faced by the U.S, military requires advanced technology across multiple disciplines and domains.
In pioneering precision guidance for munitions, designing autonomy architecture for unmanned vehicles, advancing celestial navigation technology, developing algorithms for geospatial intelligence analysis, devising both hardware and software cyber security for embedded systems—and much more—Draper collaborates with our customers to ensure they have the capabilities they need when they need them.
CAMBRIDGE, MA—March 22, 2022—Sensors and small aerial drones are touted as force multipliers for the military. Drones, known to specialists as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), serve as the eyes and ears for combat and surveillance operations while keeping soldiers and intelligence personnel out of harm’s way.
UAVs can be configured to detect weapons, track troop movements and even pick up trace amounts of chemicals. But a key component that has long stymied UAVs is an adequate power source: aerial drones typically cannot fly for as long or as well in demanding operational conditions as many missions require.
Now scientists and engineers are developing a power source for UAVs that can better withstand conditions such as large temperature fluctuations, vibration and shock. The new tech incorporates recent advances in electrochemistry, microelectronics and packaging that combine for novel energy storage. The aim is to create reliable power solutions for missions conducted in extreme and challenging environments—and potentially triple battery life over best-in-class lithium-ion.
Rob Doe, an energy storage expert and microsystems integrator at Draper, says improving a drone’s power supply, or battery, is possible given recent advances in science and technology. “A battery that doubles or triples the energy density while meeting all other necessary performance requirements is well beyond the current performance of commercial solutions, but is within reach of the developer community,” Doe said.
Doe and his colleagues at Draper are contributing to the development of sensors and UAVs as part of a team recently selected by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA). Led by Rutgers University, the team is developing portable power solutions for IARPA’s Robust Energy Sources for Intelligence Logistics In Extreme, Novel and Challenging Environments (RESILIENCE) program.
Battery cell development, using rechargeable lithium metal, is headed by Glenn Amatucci, Ph.D., professor of materials science engineering and director of the Energy Storage Research Group at the Rutgers School of Engineering. Draper’s primary contribution is to leverage its expertise in custom microelectronics, packaging and systems integration to optimize the energy storage system output, meet stringent size requirements and accelerate adoption of Rutgers’ energy storage solution.
The team has set a goal of developing a power source for drones, small sensors and portable devices that exceeds that of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries and single-use legacy lithium batteries. The team is working to create new electrochemical energy storage solutions, and lay the foundation for using rechargeable lithium metal in the power source they create. The vision is to extend battery life and design a battery that can be charged and discharged thousands of times.
IARPA says the aim of the RESILIENCE program is to develop “portable power solutions for electronics that can operate under the demanding operational conditions experienced by intelligence community officers.” If successful, the effort will provide power sources to extend the function of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with vertical takeoff and landing capability and unattended electronic devices, which must operate in extreme environmental conditions for years.
The company has previously applied its multidisciplinary engineering capabilities to a variety of related programs including to tiny, robust communications and navigation devices; persistent surveillance systems; and navigation software for drones.
This publication was supported by a subaward from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, under Award No. 2021-21060200003 from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence – IARPA.
Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Rutgers or those of the Office of Director of National Intelligence – IARPA.
CAMBRIDGE, MA—June 8, 2021—Military leaders want drones with greater autonomy, giving warfighters the ability to offload critical tasks. Advanced autonomy, however, has eluded commercial providers, despite attempts to achieve it. One approach may lie in developing artificial intelligence (AI) enabled unmanned aerial systems (UASs)—an effort underway at Draper.
Drew Mitchell, defense systems associate director at Draper, says the military is looking for systems capable of autonomous operation in highly complex, contested and congested environments. AI can enable UASs to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence, for example, recognizing patterns, learning from experience, drawing conclusions, making predictions or taking action.
“A new wave of autonomy-enabling software is giving warfighters a new tool for operating in conditions commonly found in combat environments, such as GPS-denied locations and battlespaces riddled with harsh electromagnetic interference. The new capabilities are making small unmanned aerial systems a force multiplier,” Mitchell explains.
Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division has invited Draper to compete in its Artificial Intelligence for Small Unit Maneuvers (AISUM) Prize Challenge. Participants will be evaluated on the strength of their algorithms to maneuver an sUAS autonomously in and out of buildings and provide reconnaissance in a virtual simulation environment. The drones, sensors and onboard processors for the live demonstration phase of the challenge will be provided by the government, underscoring the importance of software to the new generation of sUASs.
Draper described its sUAS system architecture in a technical white paper submitted in phase one of the challenge. The company’s special operations team working on the AISUM Challenge identified four key functions for future small unmanned aerial systems. The first function is high level autonomy, which encompasses motion planning and control, dense three-dimensional mapping and AI-based tracking and automated target recognition. Other functions are avionics, which includes the flight controller, high-rate sensors for collision avoidance, object detection and positioning and other systems to ensure stability and agility; and communications, which centers on secure radio communication and navigation.
A fourth function, operator interface, is given special attention because a well-engineered interface is critical for decreasing a warfighter’s cognitive burden and task load, which, the paper says, “is very high for current manually-operated sUASs.” Draper’s team of human-factors engineers developed an ATAK-compatible user interface.
ATAK is an application that is familiar to the warfighter, the paper explains. “It provides many hooks for sharing intelligence gained by the sUAS with other warfighters and command while on target, and provides the flexibility for the warfighter to choose from a variety of Android-based handheld controllers. Ultimately this enables the operator to customize their kit for optimal mission operation,” according to the paper.
In its design, Draper optimized its sUAS system architecture. Benefits include improved flight-control algorithms, better use of on-board processing power and progress in machine vision, artificial intelligence and other pattern recognition tools, which will allow an sUAS to handle more decisions, rather than relying on humans.
Draper employs intelligent autonomy through the All-Domain Execution and Planning Technology (ADEPT) framework. The ADEPT framework is a design concept which overcomes the challenges of the Prize Challenge through two key components: hierarchical task decomposition and a sense-reason-act paradigm of intelligence.
Draper’s intelligent autonomy software architecture is currently used on autonomous systems and applications for undersea, ground, air and space vehicles. An example of Draper’s work in this area is the Maritime Open-Architecture for Autonomy (MOAA), which serves as the foundation of the US Navy’s underwater autonomy architecture. Draper has also contributed to small UAS programs for a number of government agencies and the military.
NSWC Crane is a naval laboratory and a field activity of Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) with mission areas in Expeditionary Warfare, Strategic Missions and Electronic Warfare. The warfare center is responsible for multi-domain, multi- spectral, full life cycle support of technologies and systems enhancing capability to today’s Warfighter.
CAMBRIDGE, MA—August 14, 2018—Drones are learning to fly solo, a boon for soldiers, first responders, package delivery companies and others who want their unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to do tough, dangerous and remote work for them. At a recent demonstration, a team of engineers put this idea to the test. They outfitted a commercial-off-the-shelf UAV with a set of new algorithms and showed that it could fly with no human input once it was provided a general heading, distance to travel and specific items to search for.
The demonstration took place during Phase 2 flight tests of DARPA’s Fast Lightweight Autonomy (FLA) program. Engineers from Draper and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) comprised a team taking part in the FLA program and the final demonstration.
Conducted in a mock town at a training facility in Perry, Georgia, aerial tests showed significant progress in urban outdoor as well as indoor autonomous flight scenarios, according to DARPA. Results included flying at increased speeds between multistory buildings and through tight alleyways while identifying objects of interest.
The Draper/MIT team made several improvements to the UAV over the Phase 1 flight tests. They reduced the number of onboard sensors to lower the cost and lighten their UAV for higher-speed and longer-duration flight. Using neural nets, the onboard computer was able to recognize objects of interest, such as cars, and pinpoint their locations. The UAV explored the environment at speeds up to 20 mph, maneuvering around buildings, over fences and under tree branches, and then returned to the operator.
The UAV test also demonstrated the value for this type of technology for use by the military.
The team incorporated the ability to sync data collected by the air vehicle with a special handheld app already deployed to military forces. Using an optional Wi-Fi link from the aircraft (that the human team member could turn on or off as desired), the UAV can send real-time imagery of the detected objects of interest. Using the app, the object locations can be overlaid on a satellite map with clickable images taken by the vehicle. Human team members can then livestream the map and images from the vehicle to their app-enabled handheld devices during the mission.
“Beyond military uses, there are many other applications for a ‘thinking drone’,” said Ted Steiner, senior member of Draper’s technical staff. “There are many places we want to go where it is not safe for humans, including structures that are no longer safe or are not known to be safe. After a catastrophe such as an earthquake or a tornado, first responders want to identify people in danger or needing help as quickly as possible. FLA technology will help enable the ability to quickly search these unknown environments without the need for expert drone pilots to be available on-site.”
Co-investigators on the program included Professors Nicholas Roy (MIT Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab), Jonathan How (MIT Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems) and Russ Tedrake (MIT Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab).
Draper’s work on the FLA program builds on its legacy in autonomous systems, algorithms and positioning, navigation and timing. In addition to working with autonomous systems, Draper has assisted U.S. government agencies with projects including cybersecurity, technology protection and miniature cryptography for high stress environments.
Funding for the study was provided by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Fast Lightweight Autonomy Program.
CAMBRIDGE, MA—June 11, 2019—Search and rescue efforts after major disasters are often a race against time. Help may be on the way in the form of tiny robots that can squeeze into small spaces to check for trapped people or other hazards. These so-called microrobots could be agile teammates to search-and-rescue personnel, but until now, such tiny tech has been largely held up in the research phase.
Engineers from Draper and Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) are creating a small climbing robot, inspired by insects’ movements, with funding from a recently awarded DARPA grant. Designed to be just one centimeter in size, these microrobots are expected to be capable of object manipulation, jumping and climbing up walls—all autonomously. The team intends to add built-in smart sensors with the capability to alert the bots to their body position, self-movement and environment.
“The size of our robots is expected to be quite small, in fact insect scale, but we expect them to feature advanced technologies to enable them to navigate and accomplish complex tasks proficiently,” said Nicholas Zervoglos, an embedded systems engineer at Draper. “The microrobots, as designed, should be capable of working in partnership with people for search and rescue, disaster relief, hazardous environment inspection and other activities.”
Working under a DARPA program called SHort-Range Independent Microrobotic Platforms (SHRIMP), the Draper and Harvard team is developing a multi-functional mm-to-cm-scale robotics platform. The starting point is the Harvard Ambulatory MicroRobot (HAMR), a biologically inspired 4-cm-long, 1.5 g quadrupedal microrobot developed at the Wyss Institute and SEAS.
To shrink the microrobot to 1 cm cubed, the engineers will use the latest in microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), additive manufacturing, piezoelectric actuators and low-power sensors. Utilizing these advanced capabilities should enable the microrobot to manipulate, jump, sense, navigate and control itself. Biologically-inspired friction feet will enable it to move on rough and vertical terrain, and a built-in inertial measurement unit will help it detect its location on the ground.
Another of the team’s planned innovations is a novel manufacturing process. Because of challenges involved in fabricating such mechanically complex devices like these highly capable robots with many degrees-of-freedom at the millimeter scale, the team plans to develop and utilize a wafer-scale process for rapid and repeatable mesoscale platform fabrication.
Harvard’s Robert Wood, Ph.D., a pioneer in microrobotics and a lead developer of HAMR, said, “Smaller robotics systems could provide significant aid, but shrinking down these platforms requires significant advancement of the underlying technology. In partnership with Draper, we are looking to make a contribution to the field by creating a generation of highly capable but extremely SWaP-constrained microrobotics.” Wood is a Core Faculty member at the Wyss Institute and the Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at SEAS.
DARPA is planning a series of Olympic-style events to test the microrobots at the conclusion of the three-year program. With areas of interest including untethered mobility, maneuverability and dexterity, the agency plans to test the bots using rock piling, steeplechase, biathlon and vertical ascent.
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