Today, drones are primarily used for flying over areas that need to be photographed or monitored. But in the future, we will also see drones equipped with robotic arms, thus enabling them to grab onto a surface, take readings, and perhaps, at some point, even carry out minor repairs on their own.
“We have already been flying drones fitted with a robotic arm for some time. However, so far, we have only done this in the laboratory, where we have full control of the environment. The next step will be to get the drones out flying in the real world, so they can one day be used for inspecting, for example, bridges, wind turbines, or cargo holds on ships,” says Matteo Fumagalli, Associate Professor at DTU Electrical Engineering.
Still some way to go
Matteo Fumagalli and his research team work with the development of drones that can do more than just fly. However, he is quick to admit that although equipping the drone with a robotic arm is a brilliant idea, many elements still need to come together for the mission to succeed.
“The biggest challenge is preventing the drone from crashing if, for instance, one of its wings hits the surface that the robotic arm was meant to attach itself to. Next, we need to ensure that the drone has enough power to operate a robotic arm outdoors and face such challenges as gusts of wind,” says Matteo Fumagalli.
One of the projects currently being undertaken by the researchers involves using drones to inspect cargo holds on ships. Here, the robotic arm will help scan the walls using ultrasound. First, the walls are covered with a gel and then they are checked using the equipment inside the robotic arm. In another project conducted in collaboration with the Danish Technological Institute, the robotic arm will attach a number of sensors to a building. It will be a proof of concept of the technology’s potential.
Big future prospects
Matteo Fumagalli will present his latest research results at the High Tech Summit at DTU on 30 and 31 October.
“I hope to meet businesses, authorities, and other researchers who want to collaborate on the development of drone technology. Soon we will be able to use the new ASTA (Autonomous Systems Test Arena) test facilities for drones here at DTU, which will offer plenty of opportunity to test the new technologies. And that goes for both drones, driving robots, and underwater systems. I would like to invite others to also use these facilities,” says Matteo Fumagalli.
Matteo Fumagalli is confident that drones will one day be ready for use in connection with operations that often involve a lot of risks, such as the maintenance of wind turbines. Today, maintenance is carried out by a repairer who is hoisted down from the top of the wind turbine. Hopefully, we will soon be able to replace the repairer with a drone fitted with a robotic arm that can both see where repair is needed and then conduct the repairs.