darpa insect drone
DARPA's new Fast Lightweight Autonomy (FLA) program could see 45 mph drones the size of insects DARPA

The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the US Defence Department's research and development arm, has set up a new program to develop drones that mimic birds of prey and flying insects.

The Fast Lightweight Autonomy (FLA) program aims to create drones capable of navigating through complex urban and indoor environments at speeds of up to 45 miles per hour.

"Birds of prey and flying insects exhibit the kinds of capabilities we want for small UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles)," said Mark Micire, a program manager at DARPA. "Goshawks, for example, can fly very fast through a dense forest without smacking into a tree.

Slow-motion video of a Goshawk flying at high speeds through small spaces BBC

"Many insects, too, can dart and hover with incredible speed and precision. The goal of the FLA program is to explore non-traditional perception and autonomy methods that would give small UAVs the capacity to perform in a similar way, including an ability to easily navigate tight spaces at high speed and quickly recognise if it had already been in a room before."

The new drones would be capable of operating independently of communication with outside operators or sensors and could be used in a wide-range of contexts, from help with disaster relief operations, to use in hostage situations.

While the initial focus is on drones, DARPA announced that the FLA program could potentially be rolled out across ground, marine and underwater systems.

"Urban and disaster relief operations would be obvious key beneficiaries," said Stefanie Tompkins, director of DARPA's Defence Sciences office. "But applications for this technology could extend to a wide variety of missions using small and large unmanned systems linked together with manned platforms as a system of systems.

"By enabling unmanned systems to learn 'muscle memory' and perception for basic tasks like avoiding obstacles, it would relieve overload and stress on human operators so they can focus on supervising the systems and executing the larger mission."

DARPA will be holding a webcast Proposers Day on 6 January between 1pm and 4.30pm (EST) to discuss the program further with interested vendors.