A West Virginia University mathematics researcher has developed an algorithm to mobilize unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in team missions.
The new technology allows a team of UAVs to fly autonomously to complete complex coordinated missions.
“Someone on the ground sets an area to be scanned by the UAVs. Within the area, the person selects different priority points for information-gathering. The algorithm then sets what coordinates are surveyed by which UAVs, and determines a plan for them so that it also covers as much of the area as possible without depleting the battery life,” said Marjorie Darrah, whose project is funded by the Army Research Laboratory.
“The technology is not bypassing the ground station, not taking over the flight plan. It is just giving the ground station help to complete a complex mission with three planes at once.”
The new genetic algorithm is designed for the Raven, a UAV used by United States military and Special Operations Command as well as military operations in Austria, Estonia, Italy, Denmark, Spain and the Czech Republic.
More than 19,000 Ravens are in service, making them one of the most widely adopted UAV systems in the world. However, they can only be purchased in packages of three. Because they are generally flown individually, this research is an opportunity to use the technology more efficiently.
“(Ravens) are never really used in the capacity of what’s at their disposal,” Darrah said. “What we’ve developed can encourage the military to use a piece of add-on software that works along with the ground station.”
Military operations typically use UAVs for wide area searches and surveillance, enemy air defense and conducting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, such as securing a military base or a specific area.
Civilian operations can also utilize UAVs in teams with the genetic algorithm. The team-approach is useful for monitoring biological threats to agriculture, detecting fires, conducting transportation surveillance and managing natural disasters.
Marcela Mera Trujillo, a mathematics graduate student in Darrah’s lab, is working to use a similar genetic algorithm approach to employ various mapping techniques in another civilian application. She is creating highly detailed, high resolution 3-D maps using multirotors that fly over structures and capture images from many different angles.
“This is an idea (Trujillo) is working on with 4-D Tech Solutions, a small business in Morgantown,” Darrah said. “It is a good model for the University to work with government labs and small business. Through a summer internship, Trujillo has helped develop a provisional patent for the 3-D mapping algorithm.”
Darrah’s research team was featured on the cover of the fall 2016 edition of DSIAC Journal, the Defense Systems Information Analysis Center’s quarterly magazine that introduces new technology to all branches of the military within the Department of Defense.
“15 years ago, this (technology) was an idea. Now it’s a reality,” Darrah said. “Now that we are seeing how the Raven is being used in many countries around the world—it’s versatile, hand-launched, robust—we can encourage people to use the technology in new ways.”
With Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones gaining popularity globally for commercial, recreational and industry purposes, hundreds of UAVs may soon be buzzing all over Singapore.
The lower cost of drones and rising demand for commercial drone services have already led to a boom in the number of drones taking to the skies in Singapore.
With Singapore’s limited airspace and dense population, the need for an aerial traffic management system to allow drones to fly safely has become more urgent.
Researchers at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) are studying ways to allow hundreds of UAVs to fly efficiently and safely at any one time.
The aim is to develop a traffic management system for UAVs consisting designated air-lanes and blocks, similar to how cars on the roads have traffic lights and lanes.
Advanced technologies that will be developed include smart and safe routing, detect- and-avoid systems, and traffic management to coordinate air traffic.
Named Traffic Management of Unmanned Aircraft Systems, this initiative is spearheaded by NTU’s Air Traffic Management Research Institute (ATMRI).
ATMRI is a joint research centre by NTU and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS). It aims to research and develop air traffic management solutions for Singapore and the Asia Pacific region, including UAV traffic management which is one of its key programmes.
Leading the research programme are NTU Professor Low Kin Huat, an expert in robotics and UAVs from the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and ATMRI Senior Research Fellow, Mr Mohamed Faisal Bin Mohamed Salleh.
Prof Low said it is important to develop a traffic management solution for UAVs tailored to actual challenges faced by Singapore given the huge growth of UAV traffic expected over the next decade.
“At NTU, we have already demonstrated viable technologies such as UAV convoys, formation flying and logistics, which will soon become mainstream,” explained Prof Low. “This new traffic management project will test some of the new concepts developed with the aim of achieving safe and efficient drone traffic in our urban airways.”
“The implications of the project will have far reaching consequences, as we are developing ways for seamless travel of unmanned aircrafts for different purposes without compromising safety, which is of paramount importance.”
Professor Louis Phee, Chair of NTU’s School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, said the UAV research at NTU is a natural progression, with the school’s deep expertise in autonomous vehicles and robotics developed over the last decade.
“This research will pave the way for appropriate rules and regulations to be implemented amidst the rapid growth of UAVs. The findings can help improve safety and address security concerns, which are especially important given today’s climate of uncertainty.”
Coordinating centres to track airborne drones
To ensure that traffic is regulated across the whole of Singapore, a possible solution is the establishment of coordinating stations for UAV traffic. These stations can then track all the UAVs that are in the air, schedule the traffic flow, monitor their speeds and ensure a safe separation between the UAVs.
Mr Faisal, the co-investigator of the programme, said various scenarios will be tested out using computer simulations and software to optimise UAV traffic routes, so as to minimise traffic congestions.
“We will also look into proposing safety standards, for instance how high UAVs should fly and how far they should be flying above buildings, taking privacy concerns and laws into consideration, and to suggest recommended actions during contingencies,” said Mr Faisal, who is also Deputy Director at ATMRI.
One proposed strategy is to use the current infrastructure such as open fields for take-off and landing and having UAVs fly above buildings and HDB flats, which can act as emergency landing sites to minimise risk to the public.
Currently, restricted airspace and zones where UAV operations are prohibited have already been identified, such as near airports and military facilities.
The researchers will test out several concepts, such as geofencing. The idea is to set up virtual fences where UAVs can be automatically routed around a restricted geographical location such as the airport.
Another important research area will be collision detection. UAVs will need to have sensors that enable detection and avoidance of collision with another UAV. This will allow UAVs to follow a set of actions to avoid any mid-air incidents, such as flying above, below, or around other UAVs.
This multidisciplinary research initiative will bring together faculty and researchers from different fields in NTU, from aerospace engineering and air traffic management to robotics and electronic engineering.
Spanning a period of four years, the project which will also tap on industry experts, is expected to complete its initial phase of conceptual design and software simulation by end 2017.
This is followed by actual test bedding of solutions using UAVs developed by NTU that can be used for relevant applications in 2018.
A study published in the journal Oryx finds off-the-shelf drones can be used to guard crops and keep elephants safe along the borders of Tanzanian parks.
A new study finds that low-cost drones have a significant impact in protecting elephants by preventing human-elephant conflict in farmland near Tarangire and Serengeti National Parks in Tanzania. The project, designed by RESOLVE’s Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions program, in partnership with Tanzanian Wildlife officials and the Mara Elephant Project, works by using the drones to safely shepherd elephants away from farms and communities—where conflict can cause more deaths than poaching.
From April through July, elephants wander out of parks across Tanzania to gorge on maize (corn), watermelon, and sorghum that dot subsistence farm plots. A wild herd can wipe out a maize plot in a single night and leave farmers struggling to feed their families for the rest of the year. Farmers and rangers have to sneak within range of the elephants to throw stones and bang drums to drive them off, or, worse, hurl chili-laced condoms with firecrackers in a futile and often dangerous effort. Angry villagers can also retaliate by provisioning the fields with poisoned fruit or turning a blind eye to poaching gangs targeting the elephants for ivory.
Elephants are not entirely to blame; people are moving into their homelands and traditional movement corridors, planting crops and competing with wildlife for space, water, and food. In certain regions of Africa and across much of the range of the Asiatic elephant, this conflict presents a greater risk to elephants than poaching and has become a high priority for wildlife managers. Now, conservationists may have found an unexpected solution that works in the African bush. Beginning in late 2014, researchers from Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions, the Tanzanian Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI), and the Mara Elephant Project, found that quadcopter unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, a.k.a. drones) make elephants flee. This discovery presented a possible new tool to keep elephants out of high-risk areas, but the technique needed more testing to be proclaimed safe for wildlife and people.
In a paper released in the journal Oryx, the research team reported on 51 field trials in farmland bordering Tarangire and Serengeti National Parks. The trials show that rangers using UAVs have been able to consistently move wild elephants out of crops during the day and night. Results from the flights suggest that the UAVs—which currently cost $800 fully equipped—can aid wildlife managers who regularly respond to human-elephant conflict (HEC) in community areas and croplands.
“We’ve stressed the importance of data collection throughout this project. There is sometimes a tendency to overstate the power of new technologies, and we wanted to fairly assess the utility of the drones for moving elephants out of crops and other areas. The results are very positive and show that UAVs can be an effective, flexible way for wildlife managers to deal with human-elephant conflict,” said lead author Nathan Hahn, from Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions.
Trained ranger teams stationed along the border of these parks have now made over 120 flights in response to calls about elephants on community and farming lands.
“The greater interaction distance the UAVs provide lends a much-needed safety buffer for our rangers, the farmers, and the elephants. Here is a useful piece of technology we didn’t have in our tool kit one year ago” explained Angela Mwakatobe, head of research management at TAWIRI and co-author on the study.
While some biologists warn that elephants may become habituated to the sound of drones and no longer move from crop fields, rangers have not yet noticed signs of this, even among habitual raiders who have “met” the drones multiple times. Results of this work suggest that small drones offer a new way to reduce negative interactions between people and elephants. The UAVs have also revealed unintended applications. In one instance, rangers used a UAV to move a wounded bull out of dense bush into the open so that a veterinary team could remove a poisoned arrow lodged in his leg.
Loving elephants is easy. Living next to them in harmony requires a little creative engineering to negotiate a peace treaty. “It’s good that we can help the communities,” observed ranger Kateto Ollekashe. “When we can help farmers move the elephants away, we can build relationships and get them on our side. That’s also how we can help stop poaching.”
In the end, scientists and wildlife managers agree that this conflict will not be solved until larger protected areas and safe corridors are established for elephant dispersal; thus, it will not be solved overnight. But at least now there is some hope for peaceful coexistence between farmers and elephants, brokered by a creative use of technology and early adoption by the Tanzanian government.
Photo credit: Lori Price Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions, RESOLVE
Engineers have developed a prototype drone that dives like a gannet and launches like a flying fish, to collect water samples.
Gannets are the largest seabirds in the north Atlantic and hunt fish by diving from height into the sea at up to 60 miles per hour. Flying fish can make powerful, self-propelled leaps out of the water and into the sky, where their wing-like fins help them to glide over considerable distances.
The team from Imperial College London have taken inspiration from these behaviours in their prototype AquaMAV robot. The AquaMAV is designed to collect samples in situations such as monitoring water quality in reservoirs and measuring changes in ocean salinity to gauge the effects of climate change.
By examining the diving qualities of gannets and the leaping behaviour of flying fish, we can make an aerial drone that needs less on board control, making it more robust and more affordable to manufacture.
– Rob Siddall
Department of Aeronautics
Currently, researchers generally have to use boats to manually collect water samples. AquaMAV is designed to be rapid, efficient, and more cost effective than this method. It can also carry out tests in dangerous situations such as in disaster zones or from locations currently inaccessible to people, such as deep under the ocean.
One of the current drawbacks for small scale flying robots is that they generally lack sufficient power to make the transition from water to the air. The team in today’s study say they have potentially overcome this problem with their drone by mimicking the way flying fish make ‘impulsive’ leaps from the water.
The AquaMAV uses carbon dioxide, which is stored internally, to propel itself out of the water. In the air, retractable wings are deployed to help it glide, much in the same way that fins help flying fish.
The drone only weighs 200 grams and can currently achieve speeds of around 30 miles per hour from a starting point beneath the water. It can make the aerial leap even if conditions on the surface are rough. The researchers say AquaMAV can currently fly around five kilometres to and from an analysis. The team say the aerial range would enable those analysing the samples to be at a safe distance away from a potentially hazardous situation.
The research, part funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, is published in the journal Interface Focus.
Dr Mirko Kovac, the director of the Aerial Robotics Lab in Imperial’s Department of Aeronautics, said: “During an emergency scenario such as a major oil leak an AquaMav could fly and dive into isolated patch of water, where it could collect samples or loiter and record environmental data. The vehicle could then perform a short take-off and return to its launch site to submit samples for analysis. This would enable a fast, targeted response that could not be matched by the current methods.”
Previous studies have, for example, demonstrated the effectiveness of water sampling using drones that have large multi-rotational propellers. This approach is more complex, relying on very accurate sensing and control systems to maintain the drone in the air while sample probes are carefully lowered into the water to collect specimens.
The team say the advantage of their small, fixed-wing AquaMAV is that it can travel faster and over longer distances compared to hovering vehicles. The plunge diving approach, which mimics how the gannet dives, reduces the need for highly accurate control. This means that the AquaMAV would be more cost effective to manufacture because it needs less gadgetry, and more could be bought and deployed, to give a more in-depth analysis.
Rob Siddall, lead author and postgraduate from Imperial’s Department of Aeronautics, added: “We are really excited by our AquaMAV prototype. We believe we may have overcome the power density problem which makes launching out of the water so challenging for small drones. Nature often has an elegant way of solving engineering challenges. By examining the diving qualities of gannets and the leaping behaviour of flying fish, we can make an aerial drone that needs less on board control, making it more robust and more affordable to manufacture.”
The researchers are currently looking to collaborate with oceanographers and various water authorities to take their testing to the next stage. The aim is to deploy the robot in a wide variety of scenarios, to test the robot’s limits in waves, wind and weather, and examine the physics of high speed dives into water. An additional propulsion system is also under development to make the AquaMAV fully aquatic, capable of long periods of submarine operation.
Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed a combination of software and hardware that will allow them to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and insect cyborgs, or biobots, to map large, unfamiliar areas – such as collapsed buildings after a disaster.
“The idea would be to release a swarm of sensor-equipped biobots – such as remotely controlled cockroaches – into a collapsed building or other dangerous, unmapped area,” says Edgar Lobaton, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State and co-author of two papers describing the work.
“Using remote-control technology, we would restrict the movement of the biobots to a defined area,” Lobaton says. “That area would be defined by proximity to a beacon on a UAV. For example, the biobots may be prevented from going more than 20 meters from the UAV.”
The biobots would be allowed to move freely within a defined area and would signal researchers via radio waves whenever they got close to each other. Custom software would then use an algorithm to translate the biobot sensor data into a rough map of the unknown environment.
Once the program receives enough data to map the defined area, the UAV moves forward to hover over an adjacent, unexplored section. The biobots move with it, and the mapping process is repeated. The software program then stitches the new map to the previous one. This can be repeated until the entire region or structure has been mapped; that map could then be used by first responders or other authorities.
“This has utility for areas – like collapsed buildings – where GPS can’t be used,” Lobaton says. “A strong radio signal from the UAV could penetrate to a certain extent into a collapsed building, keeping the biobot swarm contained. And as long as we can get a signal from any part of the swarm, we are able to retrieve data on what the rest of the swarm is doing. Based on our experimental data, we know you’re going to lose track of a few individuals, but that shouldn’t prevent you from collecting enough data for mapping.”
Co-lead author Alper Bozkurt, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State, has previously developed functional cockroach biobots. However, to test their new mapping technology, the research team relied on inch-and-a-half-long robots that simulate cockroach behavior.
In their experiment, researchers released these robots into a maze-like space, with the effect of the UAV beacon emulated using an overhead camera and a physical boundary attached to a moving cart. The cart was moved as the robots mapped the area. (Video from the experiment is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OWnrGsJEw6s&feature=youtu.be.)
“We had previously developed proof-of-concept software that allowed us to map small areas with biobots, but this work allows us to map much larger areas and to stitch those maps together into a comprehensive overview,” Lobaton says. “It would be of much more practical use for helping to locate survivors after a disaster, finding a safe way to reach survivors, or for helping responders determine how structurally safe a building may be.
“The next step is to replicate these experiments using biobots, which we’re excited about.”
Unused TV spectrum and drones could help make smart farms a reality
ON THE Dancing Crow farm in Washington, sunflowers and squashes soak up the rich autumn sunshine beside a row of solar panels. This bucolic smallholding provides organic vegetables to the farmers’ markets of Seattle. But it is also home to an experiment by Microsoft, a big computing firm, that it hopes will transform agriculture further afield. For the past year, the firm’s engineers have been developing a suite of technologies there to slash the cost of “precision agriculture”, which aims to use sensors and clever algorithms to deliver water, fertilisers and pesticides only to crops that actually need them.
Precision agriculture is one of the technologies that could help to feed a world whose population is forecast to hit almost 10 billion by 2050. If farmers can irrigate only when necessary, and avoid excessive pesticide use, they should be able to save money and boost their output.
But existing systems work out at $1,000 a sensor. That is too pricey for most rich-world farmers, let alone those in poor countries where productivity gains are most needed. The sensors themselves, which probe things like moisture, temperature and acidity in the soil, and which are scattered all over the farm, are fairly cheap, and can be powered with inexpensive solar panels. The cost comes in getting data from sensor to farmer. Few rural farms enjoy perfect mobile-phone coverage, and Wi-Fi networks do not have the range to cover entire fields. So most precision-agriculture systems rely on sensors that connect to custom cellular base stations, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars, or to satellites, which require pricey antennas and data plans.
In contrast, the sensors at Dancing Crow employ unoccupied slices of the UHF and VHF radio frequencies used for TV broadcasts, slotting data between channels. Many countries are experimenting with this so-called “white space”; to unlock extra bandwidth for mobile phones. In cities, tiny slices of the white-space spectrum sell for millions of dollars. But in the sparsely populated countryside, says Ranveer Chandra, a Microsoft researcher, there is unlicensed space galore.
Learn more: Precision agriculture
We’ve all been there, impatiently twiddling our thumbs while trying to locate a WiFi signal. But what if, instead, the WiFi could locate us?
According to researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory(CSAIL), it could mean safer drones, smarter homes, and password-free WiFi.
In a new paper, a research team led by Professor Dina Katabi present a system called Chronos that enables a single WiFi access point to locate users to within tens of centimeters, without any external sensors.
The group demonstrated Chronos in an apartment and a cafe, while also showing off a drone that maintains a safe distance from its user with a margin of error of about four centimeters.
“From developing drones that are safer for people to be around, to tracking where family members are in your house, Chronos could open up new avenues for using WiFi in robotics, home automation and more,” says PhD student Deepak Vasisht, who is first author on the paper alongside Katabi and former PhD student Swarun Kumar, who is now an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “Designing a system that enables one WiFi node to locate another is an important step for wireless technology.”
Earth and environmental scientists have often had to rely on piloted aircraft and satellites to collect remote sensing data, platforms that have traditionally been controlled by large research organizations or regulatory agencies.
Thanks to the increased affordability and dramatic technological advances of drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), however, earth and environmental scientists can now conduct their own long-term high-resolution experiments at a fraction of the cost of using aircraft or satellites.
“UAVs are poised to revolutionize remote sensing in the earth and environmental sciences,” says Enrique Vivoni, hydrologist and professor at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. “They let individual scientists obtain low-cost repeat imagery at high resolution and tailored to a research team’s specific interest area.”
You’ve heard of the Internet of Things – the generic name given to all the various networked sensors, machines, devices and even buildings in the world – but most of those “things” stay in one place for the most part. The world is primed for an explosion of autonomous ambulatory devices, which led a team of engineers from the University of Waterloo in Canada to draft a conceptual framework for an “Internet of Drones.”
The authors of a paper on the concept (linked at the bottom of the page) lay out what is essentially a structure for how drone traffic could be managed. It combines elements of the current air traffic control system, cellular networks and the internet.
Researchers at The Australian National University (ANU) and The University of Sydney have developed a world-first radio-tracking drone to locate radio-tagged wildlife.
Lead researcher Dr Debbie Saunders from the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society said the drones have successfully detected tiny radio transmitters weighing as little as one gram. The system has been tested by tracking bettongs at the Mulligan’s Flat woodland sanctuary in Canberra.
“The small aerial robot will allow researchers to more rapidly and accurately find tagged wildlife, gain insights into movements of some of the world’s smallest and least known species, and access areas that are otherwise inaccessible,” Dr Saunders said.
“We have done more than 150 test flights and have demonstrated how the drones can find and map the locations of animals with radio tags.”
Researcher Oliver Cliff, from the Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) at the University of Sydney, said the technology had generated international interest.
“Lots of people are trying to do this. It is not an easy process, but we believe we’ve come up with a solution,” he said.
“We’ve had interest in our system from all around the world. We are still doing some fine tuning but we’ve achieved more than has ever been done before, which is exciting.”
Dr Saunders, a wildlife ecologist, came up with the idea eight years ago to track small dynamic migratory birds such as the endangered swift parrot.
The new system, funded by an ARC Linkage Project Grant and Loro Parque Foundacion, has been built and tested over the past two and a half years with Dr Robert Fitch and his team at the ACFR at the University of Sydney.
The robot consists of an off-the-shelf drone or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The custom-built miniature receiver and antenna provide real-time information on radio-tracked wildlife, which are mapped live on a laptop.
ANU Associate Professor Adrian Manning, also from the Fenner School of Environment and Society, has helped the team by attaching VHF and GPS collars on bettongs at Mulligan’s Flat.
“Radio tracking of collars manually is very time consuming,” Associate Professor Manning said.
“Early indications are that the drones could save a huge amount of time. If you have two operators working and they can put the drone up in two bursts of 20 minutes, they can do what would take half a day or more to do using ground methods.”
Read more: Drones used to track wildlife