Skip to main content

WVU research team to test effectiveness of drones, robots in underground tunnels


WVU researchers will  study autonomous operations of UAVs and robots in tunnels and caves through a grant from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. 

Download full-size

Can robots and drones peacefully coexist on search and rescue missions under less than optimal conditions? A research team at West Virginia University plans to find out.

Mechanical and aerospace engineering faculty members Jason Gross and Yu Gu have been awarded nearly $300,000 in funding from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to study autonomous operations of UAVs and ground robots in underground tunnels/caves.

According to Gross, these environments pose many challenges for the use of autonomous drones.

“The lack of global positioning systems signals coupled with the harsh traversability of tunnels and caves makes it difficult for drones and ground robots to operate autonomously,” said Gross. “To overcome this, our approach will leverage a ground robot to work cooperatively with a drone. In this teaming scenario, the ground robot will be used to offload much of the autonomy that is typically required for drone flight.”

The ground robot will be responsible for generating a map of the unknown environment, tracking the navigation state of the drone and controlling its motion.

“This will enable the drone payload to be smaller and simpler so that it can operate for longer periods of time,” Gross said. “It can leverage its increased mobility to scout areas of the tunnel for signs of life, which cannot be easily traversed by the ground robot.”

The research team will conduct demonstrations in the West Virginia Memorial Tunnel Complex. Located just outside of Charleston in Stanford, the once-abandoned highway tunnel, operated by the West Virginia National Guard, provides a realistic environment where emergency response teams can practice first responder training.

“I'm excited to be able to leverage this unique facility,” Gross said. “It will allow us to demonstrate our technology in an environment that is highly relevant for this research.”

This is not the first award Gross has received from NGA. In 2015, as part of the organization’ New Investigator Program, he received a two-year $200,000 award for work that can help improve the accuracy and robustness of GPS for drones. This new award leverages that research along with the work of Gu, who has been awarded multiple projects since leading WVU to win NASA’s Sample Return Robot Challenge, part of the Centennial Challenges.



CONTACT: Mary C. Dillon, Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources

Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.