Engineers plan dexterous UAVs for disaster response and more

Engineers have been awarded funding to investigate the feasibility of adding dexterous arms to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

The project, which has received a US National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, could be a step toward the use of UAVs for emergency-response and search-and-rescue scenarios.

The team, led by Dr Paul Oh, a professor in Drexel University’s College of Engineering and head of the mechanical engineering and mechanics department, will examine the reaction forces and torques associated with applying robotic arms to UAVs as part of his work in the Drexel Autonomous Systems Laboratory.

UAVs currently perform passive tasks such as gathering in-flight visual data and intelligence, tasks that are performed well above ground.

According to the university, Oh’s team is looking at how UAVs might interact with objects at or near ground level.

The group’s research will focus on what the NSF describes as ‘Mobile Manipulating UAVs’, with arms and hands capable of performing active near-ground tasks.

A gantry system, like the one pictured, will be used to test the robotic arms that could eventually be mounted on unmanned aerial vehicles
A gantry system, like the one pictured, will be used to test the robotic arms that could eventually be mounted on unmanned aerial vehicles

Oh envisions a range of applications from infrastructure repair and disaster recovery to border inspection and agricultural handling.

Dr Oh told The Engineer via email that dexterous arms are useful in disaster mitigation and cited debris clearing, valve turning, part replacement and building damage assessment and repair as areas where the robotic limbs could assist humans.

He added that border inspection often demands opening trunks and trailers and moving objects within them.

‘In some areas of the world, car bombs are part of everyday life,’ said Oh. ‘A UAV with dexterous arms could keep border officials and bomb disposal experts out of harm’s way.’

The three-year $649,999 (£415,848) NSF grant will charge the group with challenges such as developing a system that would allow the UAV to interact with objects without upsetting its own stability. Oh developed the proposal and he will be joined in the research by Dr M Ani Hsieh, Dr James Tangorra and Dr Jin Kang.

To better understand the forces and torques associated with the movements of limbs on a flying machine, Oh and his team intend to retrofit robotic arms and hands onto an adjustable gantry system that is configured to mimic a UAV’s lateral and longitudinal movements. Using the data gained from the gantry testing, Oh hopes to eventually build a working prototype.

According to Oh, the finished system would work in a similar way to machines created for science fiction.

‘We envision the finished system working very much like the Probe Droid from Star Wars (The Empire Strikes Back) or Eve from Wall-E,’ said Oh. ‘Such robots have arms and they effortlessly interact and manipulate objects while flying.

‘To do this demands studying the dynamics that underlie such interaction and then designing controllers to compensate for them.  This is the direction of our research that NSF is sponsoring.’