Mini Helicopters As Disaster Helpers

Photo: Collapsed houses

In dangerous sceneries, the mini
helicopter might proof life saving;
© SXC

The collapse of the Cologne city archive building triggered a race against time for the rescue workers. After such disasters, detailed information is needed in order to select the appropriate course of action. For example, it is necessary to know if and where people are trapped and if adjacent buildings are in danger of collapse.

An unmanned mini helicopter can handle this dangerous reconnaissance work for the emergency services. The “quadrocopter” has a diameter of one metre and, thanks to its manoeuvrability, can negotiate collapsed buildings. At present the flying disaster helper operates solo, but it could soon be joined by reinforcements: research scientists are working on their deployment in swarms. Currently this would only be possible with considerable manpower effort – the helicopters cannot communicate with each other and each one would have to be individually controlled.

To ensure that, in future, one person can control all the helicopters deployed, the scientists have developed a software which functions as a director of operations. “Our programme enables the quadrocopters to coordinate their activities themselves,” explains project manager Axel Bürkle. “One of them can fly up close to victims to investigate their injuries while another reconnoitres the fastest route for getting them out.”

The programme consists of individual modules, the software agents, which can be programmed with a repertoire of tasks. One software agent is assigned to each quadrocopter. The miniature flying machines are equipped with various sensors such as cameras, infrared cameras, laser measurement equipment, and sniffer devices for identifying hazardous substances. They can also radio images, videos and other data to the ground station, where the software agents assess the information and, via an interface, send instructions for action to the quadrocopters.

The special factor is that the software agents are able to network with each other independently and exchange information. This means that they can harmonise their commands to the quadrocopters. What is more, software agents are able to learn. They memorise what happened in particular situations and respond more quickly the next time.

MEDICA.de; Source: Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft