Smarter, smaller and more mobile robots the Army Research Laboratory (ARL) helped fund captured attendees' attention at the 27th annual Army Science Conference held in Orlando, Fla., Nov. 29 to Dec. 2.

The University of Pennsylvania's flying robotic platform the "Pelican" perfectly navigated a course on its own, going under, over and around obstacles in front of impressed crowds.

"The goal of the project is to have it navigate through a map without people helping it," said Penn's Nathan Michael, whose research is part of ARL's Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology Collaborative Technology Alliance, or MAST CTA.

The whole thing, including the computer, weighs less than three pounds, and just a few years ago the technology would have taken a computer big enough to fill the back of a car, said Michael.

Not only has the robotic platform become much smaller, but it is also able to perform much more on its own.

"It takes a higher level of thought," said Michael.

Equipped with sensing technologies, a laser camera, and a light-weight, low-power computer to interpret what the robot "sees" and "feels," it is able to fly both in and outdoors, a feat that takes very complex computing.

"It's asking questions like, 'Where is my location' How do I plan in that map' How much wind can I control''" said Michael.

The Pelican then determines its own route by taking into account the environment, what it needs to do to fly, and even its battery power, he added.

While Michael and other scientists continue perfecting the platform, they also take into consideration the MAST CTA, which is driving them toward even smaller scales, possibly something that could eventually fit in the palm of a hand.

With Penn's research leading the CTA's processing for automation research area, the overall alliance is actually lead by BAE Systems and acts as a partnership between ARL, 10 member institutions, eight sub-awardees and three transition partners, according to its website.

The overall goal is to develop autonomous, multifunctional, collaborative ensembles of agile, mobile micro-systems to enhance tactical situational awareness in urban and complex terrain for small unit operations.

ARL acts as the Army's corporate laboratory and is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command.