FAA exemption aids in Olin College UAS wildfire research

By Patrick C. Miller | March 17, 2016

The Olin College of Engineering will conduct research on using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to battle wildfires under a special exemption granted by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Located in Needham, Massachusetts, the exemption enables the school to conduct research on its own and on behalf of other research groups. Andrew Bennett, associate professor of mechanical engineer, said the exemption—given to only a handful of schools—is good timing for Olin’s robotics department and his team of students.

Bennett recently received a call from Scientific Systems and was asked to work on a system using drones for deployment into a wildfire where they’ll send back information in real-time to potentially save lives and livelihoods. Scientific Systems, which has NASA funding for the project, specializes in developing products that “collaboratively accomplish missions in difficult environments.”

Olin’s team is working on a proof-of-concept in which several drones can communicate with each other while flying in dangerous conditions and—most importantly—send back data immediately. Bennett noted that unlike the amateur drones which interfered with fighting wildfires in the western U.S. last summer, Olin’s drones will be working to assist firefighting aircraft.

Currently, firefighters receive most information on a fire’s direction in from pilots and firsthand accounts. This information helps with decisions on where to deploy fire bombers, personnel and other resources. However, the data can be 12 to 24 hours out of date and is often unreliable.

Treacherous driving conditions and lack of Internet service can make communications impossible at times. If a fire shifts course, the firefighters might be unprepared to quickly move resources to a new location.

Bennett’s drone research team has previous experience in designing and deploying drones in less-than-ideal flying conditions. For the past several years, they have been working on “SnotBot” drone that collects mucus from whale blow using a sponge-like attachment on its underside.

Testing for the project involves thousands of flights over and in water. SnotBot enables scientists to learn more about whale stress levels.

“We can fly over land, water and sea. We have equipped our drones with 1080 quality video cameras, as well as thermal imaging cameras,” Bennett said.


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