While continual improvements are allowing larger UAVs to stay in the air for longer, the lifting capacity and endurance of smaller UAVs is largely constrained by the weight and size of their batteries. In a move that could greatly expand the reach and applications of small UAVs, a team of robotics researchers propose pairing a UAV with a ground vehicle that would provide a place of respite. However, such a vision requires autonomous coordinated docking between the two vehicles, which is exactly what the team has achieved.
Coupling a drone with an unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) may prove useful in a number of scenarios. A ground robot could carry the drone to the site of a military operation and offer a place to recharge, for example, or it might transport a heavier payload to an area and provide a mini-warehouse from which the drone can make deliveries. For robotics to advance in this area, the researchers realized it would be necessary for the paired vehicles to execute autonomous, coordinated landings in a range of conditions.
Using an Aeryon Scout UAV and a skid-steer UGV, the team from the WAVE Lab at Canada's University of Waterloo developed a coordinated control strategy for autonomous docking. Converging on a pre-set location, each vehicle communicates its position to a decentralized controller. This controller then accounts for nonlinearities in the vehicles' paths, catering for various factors, such as strong winds and time delays from Wi-Fi or radio signals.
In the video which can be seen below, the autonomous vehicle docking is demonstrated in both indoor and outdoor environments. The footage in itself may be a little underwhelming when compared to some other drone-related video floating around the internet, but the technology behind it certainly seems to hold great potential.
The research was published in the journal Autonomous Robots.