The Potential Upside of Drones

In the not too distant future you may hear the hum of a drone's rotors as it descends upon you and be filled with a sense of relief, not panic.

After all, it's coming to save you, not harm you.

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Research at the University of Cincinnati could soon enable unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) -- similar to U.S. military drones patrolling the skies of Afghanistan -- to track down missing persons on search-and-rescue missions, to penetrate curtains of smoke during wildfire suppression or possibly even to navigate urban landscapes on delivery runs for online retailers like Amazon. And it all could be done autonomously with a human acting only as a supervisor.

"Drones have gotten a very bad rap for various reasons," says Kelly Cohen, associate professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at UC. "But our students see that unmanned systems can have a positive impact on society."

In this study, researchers used special software to develop an autopilot for a wide variety of unmanned aircraft having multiple rotors. He's applied his method to quadrotors -- UAVs with four propellers -- and other types of drones, but it can work with nearly any aircraft.

First Responders See Advantages to Drones
Rodger Ozburn, a regional fire specialist with the West Virginia Division of Forestry, has been working with researchers on the advanced system. He says the eye-in-the-sky perspective of a UAV combined with UC's fire-prediction technology could provide first responders a major time- and money-saving advantage compared to high-cost aerial flights with a helicopter or airplane.

The Cincinnati Fire Department (CFD) is also interested in UC's UAV research. Bryan Brown, leader of the SIERRA team and a student of Cohen's, has been working with CFD District Fire Chief Tom Lakamp to determine opportunities where a UAV could be helpful on an emergency scene.

Brown and Lakamp are planning a joint SIERRA-CFD search-and-rescue drill this spring. Typically, search-and-rescue missions require firefighters to scour broad swaths of difficult terrain on foot while encumbered with heavy gear and visually impaired by smoke or darkness. But those challenges don't exist for drones.

"With a UAV, you don't have to worry about terrain or time of day," says Brown, noting a UAV can be equipped with a thermal camera. "You just go and find what you're looking for."

For now, Federal Aviation Administration regulations greatly limit the use of drones. Cohen predicts that in the next few years FAA guidelines will adapt to this technology, and he believes disaster management and public safety officials such as firefighters and police will be among the first to be licensed to operate drones in national airspace.
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Story Source: Based on materials provided by University of Cincinnati (2014, January 15). Don't fear the dawn of the drones; someday one might save your life. ScienceDaily.  Original article written by Tom Robinette.

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