Helping hands are within reach for UAVsTo provide emergency response capabilities, engineers are adding arms to unmanned aerial vehicles
By Doug Page
Current generations of UAVs must fly high above the ground surface, clear of all obstacles, to provide tactical reconnaissance and surveillance, as well as actual armed drone strikes. Research at Drexel University, Philadelphia, is changing this conventional UAV paradigm by giving these flying vehicles hands and arms, a development meant to allow the craft to interact with an environment other than clean air. The change may bring UAVs a step closer to being able to help with emergency response.
The developers think their new Mobile Manipulating UAVs will eventually be able to perform field service tasks like infrastructure repair or help with search and rescue in collapsed structures caused by terror attack or earthquake.
“The arms will allow the UAV to open doors, turn valves and push away obstacles like railings or branches,” said Drexel engineering professor Paul Oh.
The net effect would be to expand UAV mission capabilities. In terms of infrastructure repair, this means that, instead of hoisting humans up in the girders to repair a bridge, a UAV could be equipped to fly up to the bridge and use its new arms to start welding repairs.
Oh told Homeland1 that another mission for his MM-UAVs might be the detection and defusing of improvised explosive devices. Farther-out missions might even include robotics used for underwater salvage or satellite repair in near earth orbit.
First things first, though. A UAV must first be designed that can hover and, say, turn a door knob without the torque involved in turning the handle causing the device to spin out of control and crash.
Oh's three-year $649,999 National Science Foundation grant charges the group with developing a system that allows a UAV to interact with objects without compromising its own aerodynamic stability. Oh's Drexel Autonomous Systems Laboratory is in the process
of creating two generations of prototypes that provide MM-UAV proof-of-concept, as well as identifying areas for further study.
"The critical gap is to understand the fundamental issues of reaction dynamics, or how arm motions and interactions impact vehicle stability," he said. Once stabilization is achieved, Oh said, controllers can be designed to ensure that the vehicle does not crash while manipulating objects.