RENCI takes flight

On a bright December morning, something was afoot in the skies over Franklinton, North Carolina. Not a plane, and certainly not a caped superhero, it was RENCI’s Autonomous Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) on its maiden voyage. And while not as dramatic as Wilbur and Orville’s first flight more than 100 years ago, it was nonetheless a milestone reached in the Institute’s disaster management and response research.

The UAV, a remote-controlled helicopter built by Nascent Technology Corporation of Lexington, MA, flew three successful test missions on Dec. 2, first with the vendor’s technical team controlling the vehicle from the ground and then with several RENCI staff members at the controls, including Director Dan Reed.

The UAV is a key component of RENCI’s disaster research, which applies state-of-the-art technologies to disaster planning and response. Equipped with a small digital camera and programmed to receive transmissions from battery operated, low-power sensors in remote locations, the UAV will be used to gather data from areas too dangerous or too remote to be reached by humans. In the case of a hurricane or severe storm, for example, it can compile sensor data to pinpoint the location of flood damage or mudslides. If a chemical spill were to occur, the UAV could scatter sensors in the effected area and record soil contamination levels.

“We aim to demonstrate how this technology can be used to monitor dangerous situations that result from natural and man-made disasters,” explained Reed. “You don’t want to send people to the site of a chemical spill before you determine how severe it is. With natural disasters, it is often impossible to send people and ground-based vehicles out to assess the situation. This UAV is one way in which RENCI is putting the best technologies to use to help North Carolina deal with these kinds of emergencies.”

The UAV is designed to work with low-powered sensors that can last for months or years by being programmed to receive or transmit data only at select times—for example, between 10 a.m. and 10:05 a.m every day. The UAV can drop a series of sensors at selected sites, and by cascading the sensors’ transmitting and receiving times, it can fly from sensor to sensor gathering data. If necessary, it can reprogram the sensors to transmit and receive at different times or to collect different types of data.

For the initial test flights, the UAV’s tasks were relatively simple: drop a small programmable sensor built by Sun Microsystems call a Sun SPOT at a predetermined location. After the Sun SPOT was successfully deployed, the UAV flew to several predetermined waypoints using a Global Positioning System (GPS). The UAV then flew to where it had dropped the Sun SPOT and, using wireless communications, uploaded data collected by that sensor to another Sun SPOT located on the body of the UAV.  Loaded with data on soil temperature and moisture levels, the UAV then flew to its base station, where it transferred the data to a third Sun SPOT on the ground.

On all the missions, the unmanned helicopter flew under manual and computer-assisted control, demonstrating that when needed, a human can take control of the UAV so that its camera can get close-up views of disaster scenes.

“As exhilarating as these first missions were, this is serious business,” said Reed. “We will continue to research the potential uses of this tool, working closely with state emergency management experts. It is all part of our effort to lessen the impact of disasters on our people and communities.”