UAVs have proven very successful as surveillance, intelligence-gathering and mapping craft, but their ability to interact with the ground has been largely confined to launching missiles. Now, Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is planning to endow them with arms and hands to allow them to work on such tasks as repairing infrastructure and disaster recovery while hovering near the ground.

Funded by a three-year US$649,999 National Science Foundation grant as part of a program aimed at creating “Mobile Manipulating UAVs,” Dr. Paul Oh, a professor in Drexel’s College of Engineering and head of the Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics department, is studying how to put arms on a UAV that won’t send it plunging into the ground when it grabs something. His team at the Drexel Autonomous Systems Laboratory is examining the forces placed on robotic arms attached to UAVs that might throw the craft off balance.

Instead of going straight to modifying a UAV, the Drexel team is installing robotic arms and hands on an adjustable gantry that will simulate a UAV’s movements. Oh hopes data gained using this method will enable a flying prototype to one day be built that can manipulate or lift objects off the ground while remaining stable.

But what good would a UAV with robot arms be? Oh sees a wide range of applications from construction to border patrols. “These types of aircraft will advance field service robotics for things like search and rescue and disaster mitigation,” Oh said. “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.”

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