UAS partnership aimed at finding disaster victims

By Patrick C. Miller | September 10, 2014

A disaster response organization based in Ireland is working with an American unmanned aerial systems (UAS) firm to explore the possibility of using mobile phone signals to locate disaster victims.

Disaster Tech Lab—Galway, Ireland—and Sentinel Air LLC—Alamogordo, N.M.—have formed a partnership to help save the lives of people trapped after natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, floods and tornadoes.

The concept takes advantage of two technologies becoming more prevalent in everyday life: UAVs and mobile phones. A sensor mounted on a UAV and flown over a disaster zone could detect and triangulate the location of a phone using Wi-Fi or cellular signals.

“Nearly everyone has a smartphone in their hands or in their pocket,” said Dean Attridge, co-owner of Sentinel. “If disaster strikes, that phone is normally close to them. Instead of searching for hours looking for people who may be isolated after a disaster, we can assist by triangulating on that phone. We can say ‘There’s a phone there that could well be in someone’s pocket.’”

Evert Bopp, who founded DTL with his wife Kate, said a UAV will be invaluable during a disaster. “Signals from devices will be detected, geo-located and processed into a heat map,” he explained. “This data is accessible to ground-teams in real-time using a satellite or cellular uplink.”

By providing this data to first responders, the time needed to locate victims could be drastically reduced. Bopp said another application of the technology is mapping which wireless communications networks are still operating after a disaster.

DTL was founded in 2010 after a major earthquake in Hatti. The nonprofit, volunteer organization provides rapid response internet access and communication services in disaster zones.

Bopp said Sentinel Air is “a perfect fit” for the project because it met a number of key requirements.

“We had been looking at using aerial platforms for some time, but wanted to stay away from the increasingly popular quadcopters,” he said. “While these are showing up more and more in disaster areas, the lack of FAA regulation has resulted in their use being banned on several occasions. We prefer to use a more established platform instead.”

Sentinel Air was started by Attridge and Justin Pena, both of whom have experience operating and training on military UAVs. They now fly the single-engine, two-seat Sky Arrow, an airplane built in Italy by Magnaghi Aeronautica. Considered a hybrid aircraft, it’s able to fly as either a manned aircraft or a UAV.

“Currently, we’re carrying a 360-degree video surveillance system and a radio relay capability,” Attridge said. “We’re also looking to build a gimbaled day-night sensor capability under the aircraft.”

What GTL wants and what Sentinel provides is a UAV platform to help get the mobile phone sensor technology it’s developing into the air.  

“The current rules and restrictions limit them,” Attridge explained. “They needed a longer endurance, higher speed airframe. We were able to offer that.”

The first stage of the project is to test a sensor that detects Wi-Fi signals with a pilot and sensor operator in the aircraft, which Attridge said should be completed before the end of the year. In the first half of 2015, the sensor will be tested while being operated remotely from the ground.

The final phase will be to convert the Sky Arrow to operate as a UAV, which Sentinel is discussing with Magnaghi. Once the pilot and sensor operator out of the aircraft, Attridge expects the UAV Sky Arrow to have up to 10 hours of flight time.

Bopp said that after developing the Wi-Fi sensor, the next step will be to develop a sensor capable of detecting cellular signals with the goal of locating victims trapped under rubble or in their homes when time is of the essence.

Bopp stressed that the sensor scans only for the location of the phone.

“We will purely be scanning for the location of the device,” he noted.

“We can’t tell whose phone it is or what phone it is,” Attridge said. “We can tell that there’s an emitter there, and that’s the important thing. We can’t snoop with it, but we can locate people with it if they’re lost or buried.”