Disaster relief efforts eased with help from UAV

By UAS Magazine Staff | October 15, 2014

The possibility of using mobile phone signals to locate disaster victims is being jointly explored by Disaster Tech Lab, an Ireland-based disaster response organization, and Sentinel Air LLC, an American unmanned aircraft system firm.

The team reports that a sensor mounted on an unmanned aerial vehicle (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 smart phone 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.’”

Providing this data to first responders could drastically reduce the time needed to locate victims. Evert Bopp, who founded DTL with his wife Kate, said another application of the technology is mapping which wireless communication networks are still operating after a disaster.

The first stage of the project is to test a sensor that detects Wi-Fi signals with an operator in the aircraft, and early next year, the sensor will be tested while being operated remotely from the ground. The final phase will be to convert Sentinel Air’s single-engine, two-seat Sky Arrow, an airplane built in Italy by Magnahi Aeronautica, into a UAV.

“We can’t tell whose phone it is or what phone it is,” said Attridge, co-owner of Sentinel. “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.”

The University of North Texas is also getting involved in disaster relief efforts by using UAVs.

Researchers at UNT have created a new technology capable of supplying Wi-Fi to damaged disaster areas with a range of up to 5 kilometers (3 miles) using UAVs.

Yan Wan, assistant professor of electrical engineering at UNT, and her team developed a directional antenna, that rotates to automatically align with a target to maintain a stronger communication link, which helps prevent signal disruption to maintain a wider Wi-Fi range.

“This technology would be very useful in disaster scenarios when the cell towers are down and there’s not communication infrastructure,” said Wan.

According to the National Science Foundation, Wan’s research will, one day, “enable drone-to-drone and flight-to-flight communications, improving air traffic safety, coordination and efficiency.”