The intersection of drones and combat offers several potential applications. One professor from Georgia Tech has a specific application in mind for drones: carrying wounded soldiers and civilians off of the battlefield in combat zones that prove too tricky for other vehicles to navigate.
Assistant professor Jonathan Rogers, who spends his working hours in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering, isn’t talking about passenger drones. While larger, helicopter-like autonomous passenger drones are being developed by the likes of Lockheed Martin under the umbrella of the ARES project, what Rogers has in mind is something completely different, something more reminiscent to drone technology which has already been established with great success.
Rogers has in mind the ultimate tribute to military personnel, drones that have teamwork built into their electronic DNA.
In my lab, we are working with multiple drones that lift and fly packages together, Rogers said. This involves distributing heavy lift capabilities into a number of small drone units that can then organize themselves to pick the object up.
Even passenger drones that can function autonomously, such as the ones being conceived by Lockheed, serve as large targets for those eager to shoot them down in hotly contested combat zones. The smaller drones that Rogers is alluding to are quite different, and if they can be programmed to work in conjunction they afford the possibility of extracting wounded and in-danger individuals from areas rendered otherwise inaccessible.
The vision is of multiple eight-propeller drones, each with a payload of 65 pounds. Together, these drones would be able to carry the individual, whether wounded or in danger, a distance of 500 yards, presumably to an area of safety. This would be an extremely useful and likely life-saving development, but there’s good reason why the project from the renowned Georgia Tech Research Institute remains in its nascent stages. Teaching drones how to act in unison, especially with such a specific and delicate task in mind, is far from easy.
In addition, the 500-yard distance may seem like a short distance when talking about moving people out of harm’s way. It is a distance reminiscent of another problem facing Rogers and his team: physics. The requisite amount of ‘thrust density’, a term Rogers coined, being packed into an object as small as an eight-propeller drone is not a natural phenomenon. Pushing the drones past their limits while carrying humans could prove as disastrous as leaving them in the combat area.
Rogers has his sights set on another military use for drones that would require some level of coordination: supply delivery. But, until his team perfects the ability for drones to lift and fly in unison – the central acts that allow for a greater combined carrying capacity – their parallel achievement will not be able to be put to use.
The next steps will include finalizing the cooperative flight control laws and performing flight experiments where multiple vehicles fly to a payload, connect to it, fly it to a destination, and detach from it. This will demonstrate that such a system can work in practice, Rogers told Digital Trends.