From exploring pyramids to delivering your new charger cable, drones are increasingly weaving themselves into the fabric of our day-to-day. But in addition to making our lives easier, drones have started saving our lives too.
We wrote about the drone that saved two swimmers on its first day on the job with the lifeguards of Lennox Beach in NSW, Australia. Now, a new research project is running trials of drones with sensors for volatile gases. Effectively, the four-drone team — known collectively as ASTRO — could act as first responders to gas leaks, explosions, or fires, and could determine how safe it is for humans to enter and help.
Conceived by a team of researchers from Baylor and Rice Universities, the drones have faced several challenges in getting up and running. They first needed to be equipped with sensors that weighed less than 1.5 kilos, to make flying possible. Then the fleet required training; first, with a wireless device, they learned to chase automatically, then by “search[ing] and learn[ing]” to create a map of the area they can all follow.
The training all comes together in the ominous-sounding “swarm and track” phase. This is when the drones zero in on their target — in the real world, the presence of a harmful gas.
“‘They determine that this is what we should be measuring, so let’s go collect some high-resolution data,” says [project engineer Edward] Knightly.
‘Of course, gases all have their own spectral signatures,’ he adds. ‘When the drones go out, there’s going to be a mix of different gases. It’s not going to be a clear signal of just one. So we need the drones to learn about the environment, compare it to statistical baseline models we’ve developed, and then be able to identify the sources of hazardous emissions and the boundaries of where they’ve spread.’”
Plans are in the offing to expand the fleet to ten drones soon. In addition to industrial and rescue applications, the creators have also created a mobile app for private users. When rolled out, you could then use your phone to access real-time information about local pollution levels. It looks like ASTRO is the perfect drone storm: lifesaving tech and convenience!