Washington, Mar 5 : An engineering team at Virginia Tech University is developing an autonomous helicopter that would analyse the after-effects of nuclear disasters.
Roughly six feet long and weighing 200 pounds, the re-engineered aircraft- being developed by students at Virginia Tech''s Unmanned Systems Laboratory- would assist military investigators.
The helicopters would enter an American city after a nuclear attack in order to detect radiation levels, map and photograph damage.
"It''s for a worst-case scenario," said project leader Kevin Kochersberger.
The researchers re-engineered a remote-controlled Yamaha-built Unmanned Aerial Vehicle 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.
To carry out various missions, the researchers outfitted the helicopter with various "plug-and-play payloads" as the vehicle''s weight capacity is limited.
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.
Flight control software would allow the mission to be changed mid-flight.
One unique payload consists of a miniature tray-like robot on treads that can be launched via a tether wire from the helicopter to collect evidence. The helicopter would hover over the robot, and pull it back via the wire.
A student team is building this robot, which will boast not only "chunk" sampling capability, but also a miniature vacuum which could suck up dust and dirt.
The robot is expected to easily maneuver any terrain, including expected bomb craters, as part of its investigation, said Michael Rose.
The team plans to make the robot water proof, in case it comes across water - busted water mains, lakes, rain puddles, etc.
"The electronics must be protected from the harmful elements," said Rose.
The researchers 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 Kochersberger. (ANI)