Chalmers team working on tri-drone autonomous search and rescue system
Researchers from Sweden's Chalmers University of Technology are working on a new autonomous search and rescue system made up of a marine vessel that can launch a fleet of fixed-wing drones to scout a predefined area, along with live-feed quadcopters.
Fleeing a war or disaster zone to seek safe refuge in another country can sometimes involve the perilous crossing a wide stretch of water, often in overcrowded or unsuitable vessels. Should disaster strike, the speed of the search and rescue response could mean the difference between life and death. And that's where the Chalmers team is hoping that its autonomous tri-drone system will come in.
The project's marine component is an autonomous catamaran prototype originally built for other university projects and already tested in the automated deployment of equipment at sea, tweaked for inspection and monitoring of ports, and dispatched for autonomous sub-sea measurements. This mothership will be allocated to a predefined search area at sea, and provides a link for local area communications and an internet uplink, as well as being home to a computational unit, and GNSS and IMU systems.
It will also serve as a launch ramp for a fleet of fixed-wing drones packing RGB and IR cameras to search for objects in the water, with the number of aerial scouts searching a grid determined by an intelligent algorithms developed by the team.
Should a battery-electric drone start to run out of juice, it will decommission itself and land in the water near the Seacat, where it will broadcast a message to indicate that it's ready to be picked up and recharged before rejoining the search effort again.
If an aerial drone detects an object in the water, the coordinates and a short video clip are relayed back to the Seacat for subsequent onward transmission to base operations on land. If the object is confirmed as being a person in need, a quadcopter can be sent out to provide a live video feed and potentially supply flotation devices or supplies. Meanwhile the local authorities will be informed and a crewed rescue mission mounted.
"The project is based on the simple principle that different drones have different advantages, and by allowing several different types of autonomous drones to work together, search efficiency and rescue response speed can be significantly improved, with the potential to save more lives," said the team's Xin Zhao, from the Fluid Mechanics Division at Chalmers.
The Seacat has already proved itself in the water, though project lead Ola Benderius told us that "if a larger player would put our tri-drone concept into operation they would probably want a slightly faster marine platform." An aerial drone prototype has been built from scratch, and a quadcopter has been tested. Now fitting all of the pieces into one autonomous whole is about to start.
"So far, we have succeeded in carrying out a quadcopter landing on Seacat, and the winged drones have been built and are in the process of being assessed," said Benderius, an Associate Professor at the university's Vehicle Engineering and Autonomous Systems Division. "As part of a continuation of the project, we will put the system together and test it in its entirety out at sea."