In the not-too-distant future autonomous aircraft may roam the skies at the beck and call of either the military or law enforcement while working in tandem with autonomous sports cars on the ground. The aircraft (perhaps no larger than a coffee table) could communicate with one another and the ground vehicle in an effort to complete missions such as locating a suspect, investigating a bomb threat or testing the air for the presence of toxic chemicals.

At least that's the future being scripted by engineers at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), who at this week's Robotics Rodeo 2010 in Fort Benning, Ga., are demonstrating their Collaborative Unmanned Systems Technology Demonstrator (CUSTD). CUSTD consists of two small-scale yellow unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and a heavily modified and equally robotic Porsche Cayenne. These very different vehicles are designed to work in tandem using onboard computers running advanced collaborative-vehicle software.

The UAVs have 2.7-meter wingspans, 3 kilograms of scientific-instrumentation and global positioning systems (GPS) for navigation. They need help from humans to get in the air but after that function without assistance. The aircraft, which are quarter-scale Piper Cubs, rely on onboard computer vision software that analyzes images taken by the aircrafts' digital cameras, says Charles Pippin, a GTRI research scientist who led the CUSTD effort and a member of GTRI's Unmanned and Autonomous Systems team.

Meanwhile, the fully autonomous Porsche, named "Sting," is the same vehicle that Georgia Tech and SAIC entered in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge. Since the Urban Challenge, Sting has been upgraded with a 900 MHz radio that can communicate with similar radios in the aircraft. During a demo in March, Sting was equipped with a chemical sensor and tasked with driving along until it detected a cloud of ammonia.

In a typical CUSTD scenario, the two aircraft search for an existing target over a wide area. When one plane spots the target, it radios its location using GPS coordinates to Sting, which then finds its way to the target. The UAV over the target can also call in the second aircraft to fly to the target and use its sensors to further analyze the situation. In the video below, GTRI introduces the system and provides footage of the aircraft and SUV in action.

Further out, GTRI engineers are developing an approach to missions similar to an auctioning system that would have different autonomous vehicles issuing requests for assistance (like bids) and choosing help from the vehicle (or vehicles) that are closest or can complete the mission most efficiently. "It's not practical for every army unit or every police department to have their own UAV," Pippin says. "We want them to be able to share." GTRI has simulated the auctioning system with aircraft and hopes to add ground vehicles to the mix next spring.

The Robotics Rodeo, hosted by the Detroit-based U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC), this week consists of two separate events. The Robotic Technology Observation, Demonstration and Discussion (RTOD2), closed to the public, lets research teams demonstrate their technologies to the Army Research Laboratory and the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) as well as other government entities and contractors. Demonstrations performed as part of the Extravaganza portion of the Rodeo are open to the public. The Army sees the Rodeo as a market research event to determine whether new technologies could potentially benefit Army robotics programs.