UAV for nuclear scouting missions

Students at Virginia Tech are modifying a remote-controlled helicopter to fly autonomous missions over and around areas hit by a nuclear attack.

The helicopter’s main mission would be to help military investigators detect radiation levels, and map and photograph damage.

‘It’s for a worst-case scenario,’ said project leader Kevin Kochersberger, a research associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Virginia Tech Unmanned Systems Laboratory.

Kochersberger and his team re-engineered a remote-controlled Yamaha-built Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) RMAX helicopter to fly in fully autonomous mode.

They also created flight control software algorithms that will direct the helicopter to radioactive sources on its own accord. To carry out various missions, the researchers outfitted the helicopter with various ’plug-and-play payloads’ as the vehicle’s weight capacity is limited.

The payloads are easily loadable and unloadable boxes that fit under the helicopter’s main body, carrying devices that would detect radiation levels in the atmosphere and on the ground, and take video and still images of damage. Flight control software would allow the mission to be changed mid-flight.

One payload is a miniature robot on treads that can be launched via a tether wire from the helicopter to collect evidence. The helicopter would hover over the robot, and pull it back via the wire. A student team is building this robot, which will be able to perform ‘chunk’ sampling and vacuuming.

The robot is expected to easily manoeuvre any terrain, including expected bomb craters, as part of its investigation, said Michael Rose, a graduate student in mechanical engineering. The team also plans to make the robot waterproof.

The group also designed a downward-looking stereo camera system mounted to the helicopter, to image affected areas. The cameras would allow for computerised 3D terrain mapping of affected areas.

It is expected that the helicopter will have night-vision capabilities, and enhanced imaging technologies that improve vision through smoke and fog as the project progresses, Kochersberger said.

The project — already funded at $735,000 (£488,484) with an additional $650,000 allocated for 2010 — is overseen by the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency and spearheaded by the Department of Energy’s Savannah River National Laboratory.

Plans call for the helicopters to be mission-ready in three years.