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Autonomous helicopter to investigate nuclear disasters

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March 4, 2010

Project Leader Kevin Kochersberger and the autonomous helicopter designed to fly into citi...

Project Leader Kevin Kochersberger and the autonomous helicopter designed to fly into cities blasted by a nuclear weapon or dirty bomb (Image: Virginia Tech)

Students at Virginia Tech's Unmanned Systems Laboratory are perfecting an autonomous helicopter they hope will never be used for its intended purpose. Roughly six feet long and weighing 200 pounds, the re-engineered aircraft is designed to fly into American cities blasted by a nuclear weapon or dirty bomb. Its main mission would be to assist military investigators in detecting radiation levels, mapping and photographing damage after such an attack.

The Virginia Tech 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 and allow missions to be changed mid-flight.

As the vehicle’s weight capacity is limited the researchers outfitted the helicopter with various "plug-and-play payloads" to allow it to carry out a variety of missions. The payloads are easily loadable and unloadable boxes that fit snugly 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.

One of the payloads consists of a miniature tray-like robot on treads that can be launched via a tether wire from the helicopter to collect evidence. A student team is building this robot, which will boast not only "chunk" sampling capability, but also a miniature vacuum to suck up dust and dirt. The helicopter would hover over the robot, and pull it back via the wire.

The robot is expected to easily maneuver any terrain, including expected bomb craters, as part of its investigation, said Michael Rose, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, from Gilroy, Calif. The team plans to make the robot water proof, in the event that it comes across water – busted water mains, lakes, rain puddles, etc. "The electronics must be protected from the harmful elements," Rose said.

The group also designed a downward-looking stereo camera system mounted to the helicopter, to image affected areas. The cameras would allow for computerized 3-D terrain mapping of affected areas, an absolute necessity to understand the characteristics of the blast. 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, said project leader Kevin Kochersberger, a research associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Virginia Tech Unmanned Systems Laboratory.

The project, already funded at US$735,000 with an additional US$650,000 allocated for 2010, is overseen by the U.S. 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 and Department of Defense (DoD) personnel already have visited Blacksburg to watch a demonstration as the craft zeroed in on a small, planted radioactive source at Kentland Farm, several miles from the Virginia Tech campus - video of this test can be seen below More testing is underway, with another DoD demonstration planned for later this year in Savannah, Georgia.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
4 Comments

Why not just slap a geiger counter on a predator drone and call it the same thing.

Gruph Norgle
4th March, 2010 @ 11:53 pm PST

Hmmm, looks like they forgot the effect of radiation on computer chips. Unless sheilded they cease to work rather quickly. Unlikely that much payload will be left by the time any effective sheilding is added. Great concept.

highlandboy
6th March, 2010 @ 04:54 pm PST

What douche bags....

More pro military stupid and useless things as a tack on "after the event" great idea.

IF they focused on useful things like stopping from being lock step thugs under the control of the thought police of conformity, and kicked out all the religious, the evil corporations; and actually grew up instead of being petulant and opinionated eternal 5 year olds and focused on ONLY cleaning up their own acts instead of funding themselves into another 20 trillion dollar gun toting deficit., then perhaps they wouldn't be wondering why having enough nukes, and biological and chemical weapon stock piles to eliminate all life on earth 20 times over - is not such a good idea.

And why doing such stupid crap as trying to make post apocalyptic band aids for the idiots in the military is an even stupider idea.

Mr Stiffy
8th March, 2010 @ 07:37 pm PST

Mr Stiffy, you would like for all religious people (I am assuming you mean Christians too) to be kicked out of the USA? Who are we now allowing into your USA? Would you only allow those that think like yourself? What happened to our freedoms? Once freedom of religion is snuffed because you don't like it, this country would be a better place, right? Well heil Hitler, amigo. What else do you want removed? I don't know anything about you other than you sound like a conspiracy theorist, but true Christians are loving, forgiving people. And if you are busy loving and forgiving, you cannot be fighting. We (the Christians) are supposed to be like Jesus, loving one another. Cannot speak for others, but you sound divisive. Divisiveness only begats fighting. Sounds like you are a part of the problem, not a part of the solution. I do agree with a part of what you said though. We should focus more on preventing a nucleur war, and less on what to do after a nucleur war.

Tony Barbour
10th March, 2010 @ 08:33 pm PST
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