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Development of a Drone to be used in Laboratory Automation Projects


015 Development of a Drone to be used in Laboratory Automation Projects

Fast-Track proposals will not be accepted.

Phase II information is provided only for informational purposes to assist

Phase I offerors with their long-term strategic planning.

Number of anticipated awards: 1-2

Budget (total costs, per award):

Phase I: $225,000 for 9 months

Phase II: $1,500,000 for 2 years

It is strongly suggested that proposals adhere to the above budget amounts and project periods.



The objective of this contract is to develop an autonomous drone capable of taking a laboratory consumable (such as a well-plate) from one station to another.

Currently, there are many options for robots in the space of laboratory automation, especially in the area of High Throughput Screening (HTS). Over the years, many pieces of laboratory instrumentation have been designed to allow for the loading of microplates by robotic arms such that they can be used in a continuous fashion as part of an automated system. Although, initially a point of failure, over time the use of industrial quality robotic arms has led to a very high degree of reliability in ensuring a microplate can be delivered from one instrument to another. This has enabled high throughput and more complex experiments to be run on these systems.

These robotic arms bring tremendous benefit to a HTS environment; however, they are not without limitation. Some of the limitations of these robotic systems are the cost, the safety requirements, the work envelope and the expertise required to operate/repair them. Much as robotic arms have gotten steadily more reliable over time within the realm of HTS laboratories, the tremendous interest in commercially available drones has driven the creation of more capable flying vehicles. Some of the functionality has expanded to more accurate flight control even within an indoor environment and the ability to add additional components to the vehicle. The thought behind this contract proposal is that by using low cost commercially available drones and open source software the realm of fully automated laboratory operations could become more accessible to facilities not currently equipped or funded to do so.

NCATS currently has a small internal effort in creating a drone capable of performing these functions. NCATS has developed a high level system design in addition to a functional gripping mechanism and automatic charging station. Although NCATS has interest in this research area, we are not in a position to take this to the level required for a fully functional autonomous drone to be used in a laboratory environment.

Project Goals:

The purpose of this contract proposal is to create an indoor autonomous drone capable of moving commonly used industry standard SLAS footprint Microplates from one location to another. The locations will be commonly used


pieces of instrumentation in a laboratory setting with examples being plate readers, low volume liquid dispensers, multichannel pipette systems and others. Typically, in HTS systems, robotic arms have been used as a microplate transportation system; the goal of this contract is to replace these robotic arms with a drone.

Conceptually, this would involve a general series of events to happen in an automated and programmatic fashion as follows:

• The drone takes off from a base station

• The drone flies to the pick-up location to pick up a microplate

• The drone actuates a gripping mechanism of some sort to pick the microplate up

• The drone flies along a predetermined (or adaptive) flight path to the drop-off location

• The drone drops the microplate off at the drop-off location

• The drone returns to the base station

• This process should be able to repeat without interruption 24 hours per day

For this process to be possible several key components will be required as described in the Phase 1 Activities and Expected Deliverables section.

Phase I Activities and Expected Deliverables:

• A drone with a minimum of the following capabilities:

• Self-contained motor/drive system

• Built in stabilization/control system

• Wireless communication system

• Sensing capabilities to perform onboard in-room navigation

• Lift and payload capability to support a gripper assembly and the weight of a microplate with a lid

• Expansion capability to add additional on-drone computing capabilities as required to enable in-room navigation and control of the gripper assembly

• The capability to recharge at a base station when not in flight such that manual swapping of batteries is not required and the drone can be used in a continuous fashion

• A Gripping Mechanism

• The gripper must be capable of handling SLAS footprint microplates potentially with a lid

• The microplate will adheres to current ANSI/SLAS Microplate Standards

• ANSI/SLAS 1-2004 (R2012) Microplates – Footprint Dimensions (formerly ANSI/SBS 1-2004)

• ANSI/SLAS 2-2004 (R2012) Microplates – Height Dimensions (formerly ANSI/SBS 2-2004)

• ANSI/SLAS 3-2004 (R2012) Microplates – Bottom Outside Flange Dimensions (formerly ANSI/SBS 3-2004)

• ANSI/SLAS 4-2004 (R2012) Microplates – Well Positions (formerly ANSI/SBS 4-2004)

• The gripper should be able to extend or be in a default extended position away from the drone such that the plate can reach beyond the extent of the drone rotors

• This is to ensure that existing plate nests that have already been designed to work with robotic arms that have the capability to extend to a location can continue to be used for a variety of peripheral devices without having to redesign these devices to accommodate a different loading mechanism, such as the payload being held and delivered directly underneath the bottom of the drone


• Ideally, this would be some sort of telescopic-boom mechanism; such that the center of gravity of the drone could remain at the center of the drone while in flight and not extend until it is time to pick-up or drop-off a plate

• The gripper design can be flexible, such as electrical with motors or pneumatic with self-contained rechargeable pneumatic cylinders that could also be recharged at the base station or some other methodology; how the gripper works is not as important as the ability do so

• A Control System with a minimum of the following capabilities:

• Capable of controlling/monitoring the drone with regards to position/flight status

• Capable of defining multiple flight paths and monitoring the drone as it performs the pick-up/drop-off process

• A base station

• The base station is the resting place for the drone where it can recharge batteries and pneumatic components if part of the proposed design

• Provide NCATS with all data resulting from Phase I Activities and Deliverables.

Phase II Activities and Expected Deliverables:

• Build a prototype drone that meets the Phase I specifications.

• Provide a test plan to evaluate every feature of the drone

• Provide NCATS with all data from each executed test to properly evaluate each test condition

• Develop a robust manufacturing plan for the drone, using off the shelf OEM and Open Source components where possible to minimize expense.

Provide NCATS with all data resulting from Phase II Activities and Deliverables.

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