These drones could team up to lift injured soldiers off the battlefield

Until robots replace human soldiers on the battlefield, it’s unfortunately a reality that soldiers run the risk of getting injured in war zones. In cases where that injury is severe enough, it may be necessary to physically evacuate the individual from the field of conflict to take them out of harm’s way. That’s where an innovative new project from researchers at Georgia Tech’s School of Mechanical Engineering aims to help.

Rather than resorting to anything as old-fashioned as medics with a stretcher, Georgia Tech engineers have been working on a system that involves teams of drones working together to lift wounded soldiers off the battlefield or, potentially, take civilians from a disaster area. This is achieved by using multiple eight-propellor drones, each capable of lifting a 65-pound object, which, when combined, can lift a person a distance of 500 yards. You can think of it a little bit like a version of Amazon’s proposed drone delivery service — with the exception that it could one day save lives rather than just delivery time.

“The difference between our system and other concepts of ‘drone delivery’ is that we allow multiple vehicles to carry a package together, rather than only using a single vehicle,” Jonathan Rogers, assistant professor at Georgia Tech’s George W. Woodruff school of mechanical engineering, told Digital Trends. “This allows the range of package weights that can be carried to be significantly expanded. For instance, if one drone can carry a package up to 15 lbs, four drones together can carry a package that is 60 lbs. It allows us to scale our lift capacity to different payload weights by adding more vehicles as needed.”

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Georgia Tech

As neat and obvious a solution as this may sound, there’s a reason why it hasn’t been widely adopted — it’s a tricky engineering feat to pull off. In order to achieve cooperative flight control, the drones must coordinate with one another on control actions. That’s especially difficult in cases where the center of gravity location of the package (in this case a person) is unknown. The drones also have to be mindful of where their partner drones are located, lest they collide with one another.

To cope with these challenges, Rogers’ team has developed special adaptive flight control algorithms.

“We have already designed and demonstrated a docking device that will allow these drones to connect to packages, which has been demonstrated in a series of flight tests,” Rogers said. “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.”