Wednesday, 08 August 2012 09:09
August 8, 2012
From the early days of science fiction, writers like Isaac Asimov have imagined robots capable of completing some of the routine, boring or even dangerous tasks humans cannot or do not want to. Now engineering research at Drexel University is trying to bring this vision a bit closer to reality.
Giving drones a more direct role
On factory floors around the world, machines have managed the mundane tasks that robots were supposed to take on well enough. More recently, growing use of drones in the military has allowed humans to hand off some trickier jobs that people really could not do quite as well, primarily including surveillance and reconnaissance.
But as useful as these unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, have proven themselves, they lack much ability to interact directly with their surroundings. Short of those military drones equipped to make missile strikes, most drones were really only for watching, and only so many problems can be solved with explosives.
With the help of a grant from the National Science Foundation, a group of researchers at Drexel's Autonomous Systems Laboratory, led by Dr. Paul Oh, will attempt to fundamentally change this shortcoming by adding on a set of highly dexterous and maneuverable arms and hands.
"These types of aircraft will advance field service robotics for things like search and rescue and disaster mitigation," Oh, a professor at Drexel's College of Engineering and the head of the Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics department, said in statement. “It could help with infrastructure repair; instead of hoisting someone up to a bridge, these robots might be equipped to fly up to the bridge and start welding."
Keeping steady under stress
The biggest challenge to adding these kinds of manipulable limbs is that they complicate the fairly basic challenge of keeping the drone in the air.
"Like all things that fly you want to make sure they don’t crash, and as this type of flying robot starts manipulating things in its environment it can often destabilize the vehicle," explained Oh. "This is a very challenging design problem that nobody else has ever really attacked."
Of course, these arms will also need to be able to provide some power, meaning they will need to leverage against the body of the drone to some extent, further complicating the issue.
To help tackle the problem, Oh's team intends to create a gantry system that the arms can be attached to that will replicate the forces and movements of a typical UAV. This will allow engineers to test a variety of different arm designs to help minimize the impact on the drone before attempting any live trials.
Broad range of applications
Oh imagines a number of potential uses for drones equipped with these types of arms and, despite the technology's beginnings, few of them have much to do with the military. Search and rescue is the most obvious possibility that Oh points to, along with a variety of emergency response situations.
One notable possibility for these craft, The New York Times reports that utilities have already begun considering the potential for drones to conduct surveillance of power lines in the aftermath of serious storms. Simply providing an aerial view of the damage would be useful, but with manipulable arms attached to the drone it could be possible for utilities to take more direct action to effect repairs on damaged portions of the grid. These devices could even play a role in the regular maintenance of the often distant and difficult-to-reach transmission lines that criss-cross the country.
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