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Inside Ames: Drone swarms for disaster response

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are working on tiny drones that can be deployed inside of a building after a natural disaster to give first responders a look inside.

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Inside this lab at Carnegie Mellon University, researchers are working on a range of drones, some as small as this one. They’re designed to go into places too dangerous for people.

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Pei Zhang
Associate professor, Carnegie Mellon University
The idea is that in an earthquake, after earthquake or after a fire, you want to inspect a building. These places are very dangerous for rescuers to go in. So we don’t want to blindly send people inside these places. We’re going to send these things in instead.

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The disaster drones will be deployed in swarms. The large drone on the table will drop the smaller drones, which will fly inside of a building, map it out and see if there are people inside who need help. This information will be relayed back to emergency workers.

These small drones carry few sensors to keep them as small and light as possible. They have a gyroscope, compass, accelerometer and radio. Having fewer sensors doesn’t matter as much in a swarm, as they work as a team, communicating with each other over radio.

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They can fly into the walls and because they are light, they will hit the wall and nothing will happen but it will know where the wall is and communicate that.

The larger drone, is called the mothership. It’s better at handling conditions outside, like wind and rain and has more advanced sensors and electronics.

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There’s two radios, one radio gave us the camera feed so we can see what’s going on and another radio that gave us telemetry.

Drones are already being deployed by rescue workers after major disasters. This video was shot by a drone at the Fukushima nuclear plant, a month after the disaster to give workers a clearer idea of the state of the reactor buildings. It would have been too dangerous to do this in person. The drones being developed at CMU work on a much smaller scale and could see use in many more places.

The drones are still prototypes and the team is working on improving the time and distance that the mothership drone can fly, as well as giving the small drones more autonomy and sensing capabilities.

Zhang says it will be five to ten years before these disaster drones are in the hands of rescue workers, law enforcement and the military.