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
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.”
Ahead of this years’ Farnborough International Airshow, engineers and scientists at BAE Systems and the University of Glasgow have outlined their current thinking about military aircraft and how they might be designed and manufactured in the future.
The concepts have been developed collaboratively as part of BAE Systems’ ‘open innovation’ approach to sharing technology and scientific ideas which sees large and established companies working with academia and small technology start-ups.
During this century, the scientists and engineers envisage that small Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) bespoke to specific military operations, could be ‘grown’ in large-scale labs through chemistry, speeding up evolutionary processes and creating bespoke aircraft in weeks, rather than years.
A radical new machine called a Chemputer™ could enable advanced chemical processes to grow aircraft and some of their complex electronic systems, conceivably from a molecular level upwards. This unique UK technology could use environmentally sustainable materials and support military operations where a multitude of small UAVs with a combination of technologies serving a specific purpose might be needed quickly. It could also be used to produce multi-functional parts for large manned aircraft.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) of the future will be able to visually coordinate their flight and navigation just like birds and flying insects do, without needing human input, radar or even GPS satellite navigation.
A research group at the University of Queensland, Australia is trying to make this future a reality by uncovering flying techniques that budgerigars and bees share, and applying their findings to UAV control programmes. Prof Mandyam Srinivasan, leading the research, explains: “We study how small airborne creatures such as bees and birds use their vision to avoid collisions with obstacles, fly safely through narrow passages, control their height above the ground and more. We then use biologically-inspired principles to design novel vision systems and algorithms for the guidance of UAVs.”
At first glance, insects and birds have very different brains in terms of size and architecture, yet the visual processing in both animals is very effective at guiding their flight. “Bees’ brains weigh a tenth of a milligram and carry far fewer neurones than our own brains; yet the insects are capable of navigating accurately to food sources over 10 km away from their hive,” remarks Prof Srinivasan. “Birds too can perform incredible aerobatics and navigational feats. These animals are clearly using simple and elegant strategies, honed by thousands of years of evolution.”
Scientists at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) have developed a chip that allows new radar cameras to be made a hundred times smaller than current ones.
With this NTU technology, radar cameras that usually weigh between 50 kg and 200 kg and are commonly used in large satellites can be made to become as small as palm-sized.
Despite being small, they can produce images that are of the same high quality if not better compared to conventional radar cameras. They are also 20 times cheaper to produce and consume at least 75 per cent less power.
Developed over the past three years at NTU, the promising technology has already secured S$2.5 million in research funding from Singapore government agencies.
The radar chip has attracted the attention of several multinational corporations, and is now being researched for use in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and satellite applications.
Assistant Professor Zheng Yuanjin from NTU’s School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering who led the research, said that the size and effectiveness of the chip will open up new applications not possible previously.
“We have significantly shrunk the conventional radar camera into a system that is extremely compact and affordable, yet provides better accuracy. This will enable high resolution imaging radar technology to be used in objects and applications never before possible, like small drones, driverless cars and small satellite systems,” said Asst Prof Zheng.
Advantages over current technology
Current radar camera systems are usually between half and two metres in length and weigh up to 200 kg. They cost more than US$1 million on the market and can consume over 1000 watts in electricity per hour, the energy equivalent of a household air-conditioning unit running for an hour.
Known as Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), these large radar cameras are often carried by large satellites and aircrafts that produce detailed images of the Earth’s surface. Objects longer than a metre, such as cars and boats, can be easily seen by the radar camera mounted on an aircraft flying at a height of 11 kilometres.
Unlike optical cameras which cannot work well at night due to insufficient light or in cloudy conditions, a radar camera uses microwaves (X-band or Ku-band) for its imaging, so it can operate well in all weather conditions and can even penetrate through foliage.
These detailed images from radar cameras can be used for environmental monitoring of disasters like forest fires, volcano eruptions and earthquakes as well as to monitor cities for traffic congestions and urban density.
But the huge size, prohibitive cost and energy consumption are deterrents for use in smaller unmanned aerial vehicles and autonomous vehicles. In comparison, NTU’s new radar chip (2mm x 3mm) when packaged into a module measures only 3cm x 4cm x 5cm, weighing less than 100 grams.
Production costs can go as low as US$10,000 per unit, while power consumption ranges from 1 to 200 watts depending on its application, similar to power-efficient LED TVs or a ceiling fan.
It can also capture objects as small as half a metre which is twice as detailed as the conventional radar camera used in large aircrafts or satellites.
Potential applications of the new radar chip
Asst Prof Zheng said that when mounted on UAVs, it can take high quality images on demand to monitor traffic conditions or even the coastlines for trespassers.
“Driverless cars will also be able to better scan the environment around them to avoid collisions and navigate more accurately in all weather conditions compared to current laser and optical technologies,” he added.
“Finally, with the space industry moving towards small satellite systems, such as the six satellites launched by NTU, smaller satellites can now also have the same advanced imaging capabilities previously seen only in the large satellites.”
Large satellites can weigh up to 1,000 kg, but microsatellites weigh only 100 to 200 kg.
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.”