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Disaster drones: How robot teams can help in a crisis

Published: 
24 July 2012
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Research on drone technology and disaster management led by Professor Nick Jennings and highlighted by the BBC could prove vital in improving the response of emergency services and populations to disaster management.

The technology being developed by Professor Jennings and his research team in ECS-Electronics and Computer Science, in association with BAE Systems and other collaborators, forms part of the large-scale ORCHID research project. This project evolved from the successful ALADDIN research collaboration which used agent technology to aid decision-making in decentralized, distributed information systems, such as the aftermath of a disaster.

Professor Jennings talked to the BBC about how the drones (autonomous flying vehicles) will be used: "Humans can do things like fill in maps based on what they see, starting from a blank map, which is exactly what happened in Haiti. What buildings are damaged, where facilities are, that kind of basic crowd-sourcing already happens.

"But we want to augment that with autonomous flying vehicles that are able to get a view of the bigger picture on the ground, to improve situational awareness. They can figure out where the disaster responders should go, where the resources should go."

In Professor Jennings' proposed system, UAVs will be launched immediately to monitor the unfolding disaster from the air. According to the BBC, what makes Prof Jennings's research stand out is that he is interested in allowing drones to fly as squadrons, improvising their own flight paths as a unit in response to new information, without human intervention.

"The underlying research is based on aspects of artificial intelligence, getting software to do clever things, and underpinning that is a form of mathematics", explains Professor Jennings.

The teams of drones that will patrol a disaster have already been tested extensively in Sydney, Australia, and Professor Jennings tells the BBC that a fully operational system will be ready in about 18 months.

BBC Technology: Disaster drones: How robot teams can help in a crisis

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