• Charl Jooste

Self-Folding Drone Could Speed Up Search and Rescue Missions

Image: UZH

Apart from aerial photography drones have been used for a wide range of commercial applications. Many of these applications have made certain operation faster, safer, less expensive and more effective. Another area in which commercial drone technology has been applied is in humanitarian projects, aid relief and emergency and disaster response.

In this last category, drones have not only saved lives by making search and rescue efforts faster and more effective but they also improved the safety of those heroes that work on the ground conducting these missions.

University of Zurich researchers have developed a new foldable drone technology that will allow drones to fly into areas that would previously have been inaccessible. This will allow search and rescue and disaster response teams faster and safer access into hard to reach areas.

The self-folding drones will be able to enter areas with a small opening that would be slow and dangerous for humans to attempt to enter. Using their dual integrated cameras, the drones can live stream footage back to search and rescue teams and allow them to access and evaluate the scenario. In disaster scenarios, speed is the key and the new foldable drone technology will give them instant insights into the situation and extent of the risk.

The concept is fairly straightforward and the drones are capable of morphing and changing shape while in the air. This will allow them access to small openings or cracks in order to get a view of the situation in disaster areas. Without this technology, rescue teams might spend many hours or even days of dangerous effort just to get a look inside these areas. In such situations, every second counts and often many lives depend on the success of the search and rescue operations. Any technology that can improve this process and make it faster and more effective will save lives.

One of the developers from the University of Zurich, Davide Falanga, told reporters that the technology will make rescue operations more effective, ”(This drone could have) multiple impacts – it can go into areas that would otherwise be inaccessible," he said. "In the aftermath of an earthquake it could let rescuers enter and explore a collapsed building. We used the most efficient and stable systems allow it to fly longer, and have held public demonstrations in realistic scenarios which showed that this is a feasible product.”

The Swiss National Science Foundation put up the funding for this project and it has taken six months from the original idea to the development of a functional prototype. The technology is at an advanced state but has not yet been perfected. There is no current deadline for the finalization of the project but great progress has been made.

Falanga went on to explain, "We would be open to commercializing and discussing opportunities with investors, but at the moment there's no commercial plan." He added, "We have sometimes had to tinker with the system when we've deployed it — we want it to be deployed and work immediately, so we need about six months to a year to improve the drone and make it more robust so it can work in more scenarios. But the idea itself is definitely feasible.”

Despite their challenges and the fact that more time is needed to complete the project, this is a significant development by the team from Zurich and, once perfected, will have a significant impact on future search and rescue missions in challenging and dangerous areas.

Senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham's School of Computer Science, Mohan Sridharan, explained that the foldable drone concept is being worked on by many in the robotics research community and multiple projects are in the developmental stage. "This would indeed help in disaster response, but the stable navigation of such a drone is not a solved problem," he said. "Also, complex applications such as disaster response pose other challenges related to perception, reasoning, and communication.”

Lecturer in transport and energy at University College London, Maria Kamargianni, went on to say that there are concerns, including privacy issues that still need to be resolved before this technology can be commercially applied. "This is a very promising technology for search and rescue projects, and it's much more economically viable than existing options. In circumstances where a helicopter or a drone could be used, a drone would be much cheaper to deploy," she said.

While more work clearly needs to be done, this is a significant advancement in drone technology with great potential for a range of vital applications.

SOURCE: University of Zurich

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