Yale lab creates flying, grabbing robot

Yale’s GRAB Lab can lend you a flying hand.

The Yale Aerial Manipulator, developed at the lab, is the first robotic helicopter project to successfully pick up objects of all sorts off the ground using a Shape Deposition Manufacturing robotic hand. Mechanical engineering professor Aaron Dollar and post-doctoral student Paul Pounds of the Grasping & Manipulation, Rehabilitation Robotics, and Biomechanics lab on Hillhouse Ave. submitted a paper to the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (IRCA) last month on the project. Although one robotics expert said he had never heard of the project, the GRAB lab team said they are excited about the possible applications of the robot.

“Most [flying] robots now are ‘look but no touch,’they fly around and stare but don’t interact with [objects on the ground],” Pounds said. “In fact, the only interaction is usually a cruise missile.”

Dollar and Pounds aimed to diversify the interactions between flying robots and objects on the ground. Their answer, after almost two years of research, was the Yale Aerial Manipulator, which Pounds described as a helicopter with a robotic hand on the bottom.

The Manipulator can hover above the ground and pick up almost anything, from softballs to beer cans, without landing on the ground or destabilizing itself.

“We wanted to have a robot that could interact with objects without blowing them up,” Pounds said. “A helicopter is perfect, but not very easy —it’s unstable, and easy to crash if it bumps anything.”

Daniel Bersak GRD’16, who worked on the project, shares that sentiment.

“I took a helicopter flying lesson, and the first thing the instructor told me was not to touch anything with helicopter,” Bersak said. “Because helicopters are inherently unstable vehicles, using them to pick something up was thought of as foolish.”

Most systems for air–to–ground manipulations involve objects that are specially designed for the interaction,Pounds said. But the Aerial Manipulator can pick up any type of object thanks to Dollar’s work designing the robotic appendage on the bottom of the helicopter, which acts like a hand.

The paper submitted to the ICRA reported on the team’s latest research about the Aerial Manipulator’s stability as it picked up different objects.

As far as the ramifications of this technology goes, the team is all ideas.

“The major thing is that it really opens the door to aerial grasping as a field in robotics,” Pounds said. “We’re kind of thinking about the Jetson’s future where you have robots flying around doing chores.”

Pounds said that, in particular, he finds the idea of using robots to access spaces that humans normally could not reach compelling. An unmanned helicopter could potentially retrieve probes from lava fields, deliver much-needed supplies to troops in the field, or pick up canisters sent to the ocean’s surface by submarines, Pounds said.

Bersak said electric robots like the Aerial Manipulator could even be used to deliver small packages, replacing the need for companies like United Parcel Service and decreasing both traffic and air pollution. He also said that the robots could work in disaster areas to deliver supplies or perform search and rescue, citing the earthquake in Haiti, where help was slow to reach certain parts of the nation, as an example.

The Aerial Manipulator, as it currently exists, is designed to be a research tool, Bersak said. But so far, that tool remains in perfect condition.

“[The Aerial Manipulator has] never crashed, never had so much as a hard set down,” Pounds said.

Pounds said there is the possibility that in a couple of years the Aerial Manipulator will be cheaper to reproduce, making it more of a realistic option for commercial use. Currently, Pounds estimated the cost of the Aerial Manipulator to be about$15,000.

Professor Stephen Mascaro at the University of Utah said he had not heard of the GRAB Lab’s latest research, but said that after the ICRA conference perhaps the Manipulator will gain wider recognition.

With this increased publicity may come further possibilities as Bersak said there is the potential to combine the GRAB lab’s research with that of other labs.

Moving forward, the team will conduct further research on the stability of the Aerial Manipulator.

Correction: October 7, 2010

An earlier version of this article contained several errors. First, it incorrectly stated that Paul Pounds is a Yale professor. He is a post-doctoral student. In addition, the article misstated the cost of the robot as $5,000. The system cost around $15,000.

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