Flying Androids: Future Drones to Work Like Humans
Marines rush toward a hovering K-MAX unmanned helicopter in Helmand province, Afghanistan, May 22.
Credit: Regional Command Southwest | US Marine Corps

Drones of the future could look like giant, flying androids. Engineers are testing how to attach limbs to pilotless aircraft to do work too dangerous for humans.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are already used for air strikes, surveillance, monitoring storms and transporting cargo. But with dexterous arms, drones also could conduct rescues, perform disaster relief operations and tackle tricky infrastructure repairs, researchers say.

"Instead of hoisting someone up to a bridge, these robots might be equipped to fly up to the bridge and start welding," Drexel University researcher Paul Oh said.

With a grant from the National Science Foundation, Oh and his team at the Pennsylvania university plan to examine the reaction forces and torques (twisting forces) involved when robotic arms are added to drones. The researchers also will study how such "Mobile Manipulating UAVs" could interact with objects on the ground without disrupting their own stability.

"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," Oh explained in a statement from Drexel. "This is a very challenging design problem that nobody else has ever really attacked."

For their research, Oh and his team plan to fit robotic arms and hands onto a gantry system that is designed to mimic a drone's movements. Eventually, Oh hopes to build a working prototype of the aircraft, according to the statement.