North Texas Daily

Engineering department creates drones for disaster relief

Engineering department creates drones for disaster relief

Engineering department creates drones for disaster relief
June 13
13:53 2014

Steven James / Staff Writer

In 2008, a major earthquake hit Sichuan, China, killing more than 69,000 people. Disaster relief could not drive through the thick debris and rubble to get to the victims. Helicopters could not reach them either, because of the mountainous area.

It took seven days for the rescue team to reach anyone.

“The people in the earthquake had no idea where they should wait, how long they should wait and how to send the damage information,” electrical engineering associate professor Shengli Fu said. “That was not the 1970s, that was 2008. They still couldn’t call out to get help, or know what to do.”

THE THINKING BEHIND THE DRONES

Fu and fellow electrical engineering assistant professor Yan Wan are currently trying to design drones that emit Wi-Fi signals in order to help the current status of disaster relief efforts.

Fu said major disasters in which people are not able to use their electronic devices to call for help, such as the Sichuan earthquake, were the main inspirations for designing the drones.

They decided that since so many people today own smartphones, tablets and laptops, that the main communication problem in major disasters is the lack of Internet connection.

“In the rural areas that are kind of different from the cities, there’s a lot of places that don’t have the Wi-Fi coverage,” Wan said. “So, in normal cases, when we need that communication infrastructure, we employ that infrastructure to establish the communication, and to help with the rescue process.”

Fu said that only a little more than one-third of the world has Internet connection, and that the drones are going to be used for typical disaster situations and finding missing people.

He also said that many people today go out to national parks and on high-adventure camping trips. Some of the places have Wi-Fi connection spots. Others do not.

“They have a cell phone, but they cannot connect to the base station,” he said. “We give them hope. When you have hope, you get more confidence.”

HOW THE DRONES WORK

The professors currently have two drones that work.

The main body of the drone is six arms on top of a platform. There are four legs, which attach to the bottom of the platform. At the end of each arm is a propeller, which is how the drones go up. The drones basically go up like helicopters, and move from side to side while up in the air. Each arm has LED lights attached to it for seeing in the dark. On the top of each drone is the wiring that makes all of the electricity that make the drones work. There are only a few wires.

The battery, which looks like a rectangular prism, sits on the very top of the drone. The antenna also sits on top of the drone. The drone weighs 3 Kg and the battery weighs 0.5 Kg. It takes 0.3 seconds to turn when in the air.

They emit the Wi-Fi signals themselves by carrying antennas on top of them that release the signals.

The machines fly up, normally two or more at a time, and then proceed to the rescue area. After reaching the designated spots, the drones’ antennas line up with each other and release the Wi-Fi signals. Phones, laptops and other devices that use Wi-Fi can then be used by the disaster victims to either call for help or allow the rescue teams to track the signals to the victims.

The drones are controlled by remote controls, which manipulate the propellers at the end of each of the drones’ arms, the altitude of the drones and how fast the drones move. The controllers also allow people at the base station to know how far away the drones are for signal strength.

They also have cameras attached to them so the pilots can see where the drones are.

Wan is in charge of the control aspects of the drone project.

She said the drones are not ready for use yet, because they are still facing some technical problems.

Each drone can only go as high as 20 m into the air, which is not high enough to fly over buildings and around certain debris areas. Each drone also only has a battery life of 15 minutes.

“In order to make this happen, we need to prove this can work,” Wan said. “There are still lots of tests and verifications that need to be done.”

Fu said that in order for the drones to last in the air longer, the weight on top of the drones needs to decrease and the battery life needs to be more powerful. He, Wan and their graduate students, who are helping them build the drones, are trying to make them lighter by combining wiring and using certain types of metal for the top heavy machines.

However, they have not yet found a way to make the batteries lighter or last longer, which are things Fu said they hope to discover within the next few months.

OBSTACLES WITH DRONES’ MASS PRODUCTION

Fu and Wan both said they hope their drones will go into mass production one day.

Fu said that before the drones can be used in relief efforts, they need to be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.

He also said he understands why the drones will not be approved for commercial use for a long time, especially since researchers have not yet discovered how to keep the drones from crashing into homes or people after losing battery power.

“I understand where the concern is, and why, but also, I am optimistic once we have FAA here, what types of UAVs under regulation, and once we get people to operate controllers, we can get on more with research,” Fu said. “And only by doing this, we can convince FAA, or other companies, or other federal agencies to trust the new design.”

Political science associate professor Michael Greig said that drones can be useful for many reasons, including being sent places that people cannot safely go. However, he also said getting drones approved for commercial use is very difficult, especially since many people feel uneasy about the technology.

“In the security realm, I think that the discomfort people feel is the disconnect that is perceived when drones are used as an instrument of military force,” Greig said. “I think the potential for autonomous drones making decisions on using force also makes people deeply uncomfortable.”

He also said drone technology is popular with governments because they are generally cheap and within the technological capacities of most governments.

Drones are not commonly used for civilian purposes.

“I think that we will see drones grow in increasing technological sophistication and will see their increased use in civilian and non-civilian settings,” he said.

Featured Image: UNT’s electrical engineering department have been designing drones to fly into disaster areas and act as mobile hot spots for Wi-Fi since December. Photo by Steven James, Staff Writer.

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