Abstract

Unmanned aerial vehicles are increasingly being tasked to connect to payload objects or docking stations for the purposes of package transport or recharging. However, autonomous docking creates challenges in that the air vehicle must precisely position itself with respect to the dock, oftentimes in the presence of uncertain winds and measurement errors. This paper describes an autonomous docking mechanism comprising a static ring and actuated legs, coupled with an infrared tracking device for closed-loop docking maneuvers. The dock’s unique mechanical design enables precise passive positioning such that the air vehicle slides into a precise location and orientation in the dock from a wide range of entry conditions. This leads to successful docking in the presence of winds and sensor measurement errors. A closed-loop infrared tracking system is also described in which the vehicle tracks an infrared beacon located on the dock during the descent to landing. A detailed analysis is presented describing the interaction dynamics between the aircraft and the dock, and system parameters are optimized through the use of trade studies and Monte Carlo analysis with a three degree-of-freedom simulation model. Experimental results are presented demonstrating successful docking maneuvers of an autonomous air vehicle in both indoor and outdoor environments. These repeatable docking experiments verify the robustness and practical utility of the dock design for a variety of emerging applications.

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