The Next Frontier in Mechanical Engineering

Drone technology is quickly evolving –no longer just for military use, these flying robots now have a place within commercial enterprise. Also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, drones today have practical applications, like delivering packages for Amazon or allowing realtors to take aerial video to show off a sale property. To date, there is usually a weight limit on how much a drone can carry, restricting its usefulness. But Jonathan Rogers, assistant professor at the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering, is trying to change that. He is designing, building and programming robotic drones that can link up and carry larger, heavier objects as a unit.

“In my lab, we are working with multiple drones that lift and fly packages together,” said Rogers. “This involves distributing heavy lift capabilities into a number of small drone units that can then organize themselves to pick the object up.” With exceptional portability, unobtrusive size and remote control, drones are ideal for situations that are dangerous for humans. Rogers has designed the world’s first heavy lift small drones – robots that can work together to lift and evacuate wounded soldiers from the battlefield or civilians from a disaster area. Theoretically, three to four man-portable robots fly out together, connect to the person, and lift them 500 yards out of harm’s way. Each drone has eight large propellers and can fold up into a backpack for portability. The drone can lift a 65 pound object, and with three or four drones working together, a human can be lifted. Rogers explains that it’s all about thrust density, a term he invented.

“Determining how much thrust you can pack into a small area is important when you are using multiple vehicles to lift a specific object,” said Rogers. “When you pack a large amount of thrust into a small object, the laws of physics work against you, so you need more power. That’s why we only fly the soldiers about 500 yards away after they are lifted from the battlefield.”

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