VT researchers look at autonomous drones for search and rescue missions

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BLACKSBURG, Va. (WDBJ) - It takes a few minutes to get set up.

"Just to move forward, and do some kind of, maneuvering, movement, that's it," said Pratik Mukherjee, a PhD student at Virginia Tech working on a program that will allow drones to fly without a pilot.

Right now, the flight pattern is not overly impressive, but within a few years, the drones at the drone lab on campus could aid in search and rescue missions.

"We have lots of different robots we can choose from, a drone is just a robot that flies," said Dr. Ryan Williams.

Pratik is one of Dr. Ryan Williams' students. Williams is currently working on a four year project thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation, that will help get these drones much higher than just a few meters.

They will also hopefully help law enforcement officers.

"When a drone is used by public safety period, especially law enforcement, you have a specific purpose, and when we use it we don't fly drones just for general observation," said Sheriff Lane Perry of Henry County.

Just this past week, Henry County Sheriff's office took part in a search for a kidnapping and shooting suspect where a drone was used. But manpower was also used to operate the drone.

"So the drones are making their own decisions, moving without human control, but the human is sort of intermittently interacting with the drone and occasionally maybe correcting the drone's action," said Williams.

In just a few weeks Williams' team will conduct their own mock search and rescue with the program they've created so far. Throughout the rest of the program, Williams has some pretty lofty goals.

"My expectation is that probably we will need a few more years to get the robots where they're in a place that they're reliable enough and can be trusted to join humans in real searches," said Williams.