TAMPA–Tomorrow’s missions may take U.S. special operators into places where they’d rather not control drones by hand, so the maker of the popular Black Hornet nano-drone has added a way to steer it by simple voice commands.
U.S. operators began using the Black Hornet after seeing British forces flying them in Afghanistan in 2011. Years of experiments with optical and thermal cameras have turned the nano-drone into a key element of the U.S. Army’s soldier-borne sensor program. Teledyne FLIR has now teamed with AI startup Primordial Labs in order to include voice control.
At Global SOF Foundation’s SOF Week event , an operator sent a drone in the direction of a number of places using a small computer.
The software could be used for just about any kind of drone or system, said Mike Adkins, who runs product and business development for Primordial Labs. He said U.S. Special Operations Command had asked for a demo on seven types of drones, using “a whole inventory of discrete commands,” including “manipulating the sensor, looking at things, moving elevation, interacting with waypoints.”
The mission-level commands, the mission-type orders that we’re supporting right now are things like route, area, and zone reconnaissance, searching between a point, orbiting a point, conducting different scan patterns within a given area. And we’re actually on contract with [U.S. Army Special Operations Command] to add 100 autonomous behaviors this year,” he said.
Because ordering a flying bug drone around is potentially more complicated than steering it with a joystick, the Primordial Labs team worked to make sure the software could understand the user’s intention across a variety of different ways to order the drone to do something. This is important because multiple operators might need to give commands to the drone, depending on the circumstances.
Primordial Labs CEO Lee Ritholtz previously worked with DARPA and Lockheed Martin on software for autonomous F-16s. He said that the company next hopes to enable the drone to talk back to its operator about what it sees–that is, what it detects using object-recognition software. The software could tell an operator the number of people, vehicles, or enemy soldiers in a certain area. Depending on the drone and the optics package, it might pick up things like a hidden firearm that the naked eye might miss. Ritholtz said that he hoped to debut that capability next year but cautioned, “It’s a very hard problem and I would not take anyone seriously who says it’s easily solved.”