North Texas Daily

UNT drones take flight

UNT drones take flight

October 30
18:15 2014

Matthew Brown / Intern Writer

A drone hovers 10 feet off the lawn while its four rotors create a persistent whirring. Three men stand nearby while one holds a large metal remote.

A small research team at UNT, headed by assistant electrical engineering professor Shengli Fu, has been building drones like this one since last December to create wireless Internet networks in disaster areas.

“When there is no infrastructure, we need to establish fresh infrastructure as early as possible,” said assistant electrical engineering professor Yan Wan, who works with Fu. “The drone may be a good solution for that.”

The Smart America Challenge, a meeting held last December, divided researchers into teams and challenged them to use new technologies to improve life.

Fu is a part of the group that would become responsible for the Smart Emergency Response System. The goal of SERS is to make disaster relief more effective. The drones are one of several projects different SERS teams are developing.

Earthquakes can knock down cell towers and power stations, making it impossible for people to contact rescue workers and family members. Tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and tsunamis can cause similar situations.

Even in areas where infrastructure is still intact, cellular networks can be overloaded when people try to contact loved ones or emergency workers.

“In 2011, there was a very small scale earthquake in [Washington] D.C., and there was no damage to the towers,” Fu said. “After the earthquake, everyone wanted to use their phone, and, it turns out no one could do it.”

A fleet of drones can be sent to these areas to increase the capacity of a struggling network. The drones carry wireless modems and routers on them that can provide an Internet connection to an entire area affected by a disaster. Each drone added increases the effective range of the network.

To create a network, a concentrated directional signal is transmitted from the ground to a drone. From that drone, the signal is sent out to another drone and it continues on to as many drones as required. Each of the drones creates an umbrella of wireless coverage beneath it.

So far, the drones can remain airborne for 25 minutes before they must land and recharge their batteries. One of the main challenges of the project is to increase the flight time.

There are a number of options to create more effective drones, but they have trade offs. Larger batteries can be used, but the extra weight of the batteries cancels out the benefit of the extra juice. Extra rotors offer higher stability to combat wind but also increase weight and power consumption.

“We use big propellers and bigger motors in order to decrease the speed of the [rotors] in order to increase efficiency,” said Yixin Gu, a research assistant.

So far, the drone network is capable of seven megabytes a second and the umbrella of coverage from a single drone, and that coverage can stretch three kilometers.

The drones also have potential in the military sector. In less developed countries, soldiers must rely on expensive and sometimes unreliable satellite communications. Fu’s flying Wi-Fi network offers an alternative option that is mobile, more reliable and cheaper than building expensive infrastructure.

The experiment has been an adventure for those involved.

“We’ve crashed lots of times,” Gu said.

But the team keeps pushing forward, and if it can solve the power issues, drones like Fu’s may become a common sight everywhere from sporting events to natural disasters.

Other prototypes from SERS include several types of robots and harnesses for rescue dogs that enable handlers to direct the dogs from a distance while monitoring the dog and its environment.

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