DARPA gives helicopters insect-like legs to land on uneven surfaces

Scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology are testing a revolutionary kind of robotic landing gear which folds in flight, extracts while landing, and bends in response to variable terrain. These robotic legs allow for stable and safe landings of unmanned helicopters in a variety of rough terrain which is typically not accessible to traditionally outfitted aircrafts. DARPA’s Mission Adaptive Rotor (MAR) program is funding the project, which showcased the research at the recent Wait, What? A Future Technology Forum, in St. Louis, Missouri.

The team at Georgia Institute of Technology developed the novel robotic landing gear using legs with articulated joints that can fold up when the helicopter is flying and extend when the copter is preparing to land. The legs contain force-sensitive contact sensors which detect the terrain as the unmanned vehicle descends on its landing site. The data from the sensors is interpreted in real-time by the helicopter and used by the flight system to make adjustments, so as to avoid hitting the rotor on the landing area and maintain level flight. The legs add little additional weight to the aircraft and provide a tremendous amount of benefit by expanding its available landing terrain.

The team recently field-tested the system in a controlled trial that, along with simulations and structural analysis, demonstrated the potential effectiveness of the system. According to DARPA program manager Ashish Bagai, the system can land a helicopter on terrain with a 20-percent slope, and on uneven, boulder-laden terrain with a five-fold reduction in the risk of damage to the aircraft. It also can be used to land on moving ships, including those sailing on rough seas.

Though still very much in its early stages, DARPA hopes to use this technology in the future to provide helicopter support in areas that are usually not accessible to the aircraft, such as forward operating bases which lack airfields, natural disaster sites, and more.

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