A self-organised fleet of autonomous robots could soon replace human fire-fighters, rescuers or construction workers in tasks that could put human lives at risk.
The flying robots, equipped with multi-joint manipulator arms, are not a part of a science-fiction movie. They are being developed as part of an EU-funded project and foreseen as useful helpers in all situations too dangerous for human workers.
The cooperating robots can grasp objects, transport and deposit material, including industrial parts, debris or pieces of space stations. They could clean up after nuclear accidents, erect antennas on mountain tops, speed up construction work or examine piping systems.
Part of the EU-funded ARCAS (Aerial Robotics Cooperative Assembly System) project, the robots have recently been tested in Spain.
“The idea is that the robots should be able to fly in anywhere where it is impossible or impractical for piloted aircraft or ground robots to operate," explained ARCAS project manager Professor Aníbal Ollero, of the University of Seville. ‘We have helicopters, and multi-rotor systems with eight rotors to give more hovering control, increase the payload and carry arms with greater degrees of freedom.”
The indoor test in Spain’s Advanced Aerospace Technologies Centre in Seville used 10 mini-prototypes working together in an organised way.
“The robots work very well,” Prof Ollero said. “We still need to improve accuracy and repetitiveness in different conditions, but the results are very promising. We have demonstrated aerial manipulation with six- and seven-joint arms, perception and planning functionalities. This is the world's first."
While various UAV systems and flying robots have been developed previously, none of the earlier projects tried to equip the robots with manipulator arms to enable them to actively grasp and carry things fully autonomously.
The ARCAS team expects the robots, guided by positioning sensors, GPS and 3D maps, could first be deployed to carry out inspections and maintenance work on oil and gas pipelines and electricity networks.
The team, which involves partners from eight European research institutions, will now focus on improving the robustness of the robots and enabling them to work in larger constellations.
The robots will be equipped with smart software and capable of evaluating weather conditions or understand their own mistakes and take a corrective action. They will be able to make decisions to emergency land or return to the base.
The researchers foresee the robots could be useful in construction work, especially when building structures in places that are difficult to access. They could also assist firefighters in rescuing people from dangerous places.
Ultimately, the teams would like to see such robotic fleets working in space, dismantling decommissioned satellites, removing space junk and servicing the space station.
The current €6.15m project, part of the EU 7th Framework Programme, will end in 2015.