Designing an Unmanned Chopper for Nuclear Disasters
This is Yamaha's RMAX unmanned aerial vehicle, which according to the company's website is "to be used in agriculture for the purpose of crop dusting, and also to serve...for observation/monitoring." Now, the Virginia Tech Autonomous Aerial Robotic Team is modding these choppers out with specialized equipment that would take them far beyond the realm of crop-dusting. The idea, horrible as it is to think about, is to make these vehicles capable of entering difficult areas in difficult situations. One possible scenario that has been put forward: The choppers could be deployed after a nuclear strike, or a dirty bomb explosion, to search for survivors, monitor radiation levels, and assess damage. The team leader at Virginia Tech is Dr. Keven Kochersberger. Despite the fact that some of the work is classified (the research is being funded by the US government), Dr. Kochersberger agreed to an interview via email.1) Tell me a little bit about the background of this project -- how did it come about? What was the goal, and has that goal changed as the project progressed?
The Unmanned Systems Lab has built a capability in operating VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft for autonomous payload delivery through previously funded projects and collegiate competitions such as the International Aerial Robotics Competition (IARC). The IARC event has served to train undergraduates in the use of software tools, as well as the design and fabrication of electrical and mechanical hardware which is critical to building lightweight and low power systems. In 2008, the Virginia Tech IARC team placed 2nd and took home $17,700 in prize money. Those students that stay on for a graduate degree hit the ground running which gives the lab a distinct advantage.
2) The Yamaha-built UAV RMAX helicopter -- can you tell me a bit more about this vehicle?
This helicopter was designed by Yamaha as a low-cost, remote controlled crop dusting aircraft to be used on small rice fields in Japan. A few were exported to the U.S. for research purposes, but in 2005 the Japanese government ceased exports and so the helicopter currently has only limited support from the manufacturer. It can carry about 50 lbs. of payload for 45 minutes, and flies no faster than 20 MPH when carrying our custom-designed payloads. It has been upgraded to be fully autonomous and requires FAA approval to fly in the National Airspace.
The helicopter has a commercial autopilot installed, and a VT-designed electronics box, or E-box, mounted to the belly which contains a mission computer, payload radio, and custom designed power and communications printed circuit boards. A gimbaled camera and stereo camera system are additional permanent installations which are powered and controlled through the E-box. The mission computer operates the payloads and provides high level control to the air vehicle system.
4) How do you envision the use of this modified UAV? I understand that it could, for example, go into a city after a nuclear attack?
I have to be very vague about this. The system is designed so that a minimal crew can rapidly deploy the helicopter configured with its mission-specific payload.
5) Are there other scenarios, though, where it could prove useful?
Yes. There is nothing in the design of this air-vehicle system that is specific to sampling in a blast site. For instance, the helicopter could be configured to locate lost hikers, send images back to the ground station and accurately drop supplies via a tether.
6) And the UAV you're working on is largely autonomous, right?
It can be operated fully autonomously, however we are manually taking off and landing (through remote control) to provide an added margin of safety. Once airborne, the flight control computer is engaged and the helicopter proceeds on its mission. This system is designed to be fault tolerant, and in the event that a radio link is lost, the helicopter will return to its home waypoint. Manual control can be regained at any time during the mission via a safety pilot who is continuously observing the helicopter as it flies (for our research purposes only – in an actual mission the visual line of sight of the helicopter would be lost).
7) How would the vehicle itself deal with high radiation levels, dust, dirt, etc?
The electronics have undergone preliminary radiation and environmental testing. As the project progresses, we will be more focused on developing a fully deployable system that will work in all possible conditions.
8) What's the timeline for testing and deployment?
The press release says we will be mission-ready in 3 years. In the meantime, we will conduct frequent research flights near Virginia Tech and provide larger demos to the sponsor on a less-frequent basis.
(Top photo courtesy of Yamaha. Bottom photo courtesy of Virginia Tech)