Last year, the Pentagon asked DIY-drone enthusiasts to come up with the spy drone of the future. Twelve months later, it looks like they might need a little more time.
In an announcement posted online yesterday with little fanfare, Darpa announced that its UAVForge competition had ended — with none of the 140 teams emerging victorious in the quest to create a better spy drone. “The teams brought creativity and enthusiasm to the competition,” Jim McCormick, the Darpa program manager in charge of the contest, said in the statement. “The competition was more constructive than you might expect; there were many examples of teams helping each other.”
The idea behind Darpa’s challenge was this: DIY drone-builders would congregate online at UAVForge.net, team up, and create portable, affordable drones able to, among other tasks, “fly to and perch in useful locations at several kilometers’ range for periods of several hours, and provide continuous, real-time surveillance without dedicated or specialized operators.”
The crowdsourced challenge saw several milestones over the last year: Each team was first asked to upload a YouTube video meant to “advertise their skills,” followed by another clip to “demonstrate early flight behaviors” of their drone.
After that, the agency held a live video demo, and went on to pick nine teams that’d partake in a “fly-off” competition at Ft. Stewart, which simulated a real surveillance mission. The winning team was supposed to score $100,000, the chance to strut their drone’s stuff in a military exercise, and an opportunity to “work with a government-selected UAV manufacturer” to produce additional copies of their winning drone.
Initially, the challenge seemed to be off to a solid start. Teams, comprised of 3,500 people from around the world, posted YouTube videos of some remarkable, creative drone designs. They included the XL-161 Trinity, a solar- and fuel-powered drone allegedly able to “destroy any aircraft or missile within a wide range,” along with the Falcon, a modular drone decked out with a rotating camera and (as conveyed by the video soundtrack) inspired by the sweet sounds of Metallica. And lest we forget the Pogo 2010, an aptly named drone designed to be launched from a rocket.
The agency’s fly-off challenge (for which neither Metallica-drone nor Pogo-drone made the cut) was held in May. Each drone was required to complete a vertical take-off, navigate beyond line of sight, then land on a structure and capture surveillance footage before returning to the starting point. The competing drones managed take-off and navigation fairly well, according to Darpa, but not a single one successfully landed on a structure to snag video.
Darpa’s own UAVForge online hub offers a play-by-play of each drone’s fly-off defeat. “UAVs recovered with the help of fishermen on the lake; cease operations,” read the mission notes from an attempt by the ATMOS drone, a combination of a quadrotor with a flying wing. “Before team arrives, UAV makes rapid descent to pavement with significant damage on impact,” recount the notes on another competing drone, DHAKSHA, which featured a rotorcraft design. And, from drone NAVYEOD, another rotorcraft: “UAV down behind cemetery.”
Of course, it would be premature to sound the death knell for this DIY drone challenge. While Darpa’s enjoyed rapid success with plenty of its crowdsourced projects, including its infamous red balloon hunt and this year’s shredded-paper reassembly contest, the agency has also funded competitions that have taken years to yield winning results. Most notable is the agency’s Grand Challenge — a competition, first held in 2004, to spur the development of robotic vehicles. In its inaugural year, the contest saw none of the competing vehicles even complete the assigned route. In 2005 and 2007, however, several teams navigated difficult courses and finished successfully. Today? Robo-cars for civilians are just around the bend.
Plus, the requirements to win UAVForge were — as even Darpa admitted early on — difficult to meet. “You know, this isn’t a sure thing,” McCormick told reporters last year. “We’re trying something new, and it has a lot of promise. But we’re going to have to work through.”
More specifically, the agency wanted drones that could fit inside a rucksack and cost less than $10,000 apiece. That part, for DIY-drone designers, was easy — drone aficionados have been creating small, low-cost vehicles for years now. But the technical elements — including sustained surveillance for three hours, vertical takeoff and noise reduction features — were much, much tougher, especially when combined with a wee size and a tiny price tag.
The agency hasn’t announced whether or not it’ll host a second round of the DIY-drone competition. Here’s hoping it does — because based on what we know about the future of drones, that contest winner is no doubt flying just beyond the horizon.